A thistle and a rose
I’m doing what I spend a big chunk of the summer doing: staring at the west wall of St Mary’s, Oxford’s University Church.
That’s the view I get as I sit at the computer, waiting for inspiration to hit me: in the photo above, which predates the age of computers just a little, I’m in the curtained window jutting out above the street. Between me and the church is an alleyway, St Mary’s Passage, running from High St into Radcliffe Square, the heart of Oxford University: you can see one side of the circular Radcliffe Camera, a library, that dominates the square, and the Old Bodleian Library behind it.
Needless to say, I’m ridiculously lucky in where I go to work every morning. But I have been known to grumble about the tourists. Twice or three times a day, and in the summer months closer to fifteen times a day, a tour guide will halt his group under my window and explain how C.S. Lewis was inspired to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by what he saw in the alleyway beneath me: a Victorian lamppost, a couple of fauns carved at the top of the main door to the building, and an image of the Green Man on the same door which bears a passing resemblance to a lion with a mane. Hence, the theory goes, Aslan, Mr Tumnus and the mysterious lamppost Lucy sees when she first stumbles into Narnia.
How true that story is, I really don’t know. To be honest, after listening to several thousand retellings of it by now I’m beyond caring. But that isn’t to say I’m not fascinated by my surroundings as I sit in that window. The building, known as St Mary’s Entry, is old, dating back to around 1600, but we know very little about its history: for a long time up until the 1880’s it was a pub, the City Arms, and it only came into full use by the college in 1919. That’s more or less all we know.
But there are some clues, and the best of them happen to be in my office. According to An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford (1939), it contains a number of features that seem to date to the early seventeenth century.
There is an elaborate Jacobean overmantel:
Two fauns that echo the two around the door downstairs, but are much older: the ones outside seem to be Victorian. Here’s one of the fauns inside:
Most intriguingly of all, there is a design around the door of the room featuring roses in the spandrels at the top:
and at the bottom (the authors of An Inventory missed this), thistles:
I suppose all the recent discussion of Scottish independence has made me pay more attention to the roses and thistles, and I had assumed some connection with the Acts of Union in 1706/7, but when I thought about it (with the Jacobean carvings inside the room in mind, especially), the more obvious link was to James I of England and VI of Scotland, a century before the Act of Union, whose coins carried images rather similar to those around my door. James had wanted a full union of Scotland with England, but the issue was as controversial then as now, and they remained sovereign states under one monarch until the reign of James’ great-granddaughter, Anne.
Well, it’s a good excuse to speculate. And whatever I come up with can’t be any less likely than the spiel of the tourist guides.
Once James was in the frame, and a date for the woodwork (independently reached) of the early seventeenth century, what caught my attention was an event I hadn’t previously been aware of, a visit by the king, accompanied by Queen Anne and his eldest son Henry (and the five-year-old Charles, future Charles I), to Oxford at the end of August 1605, two years after his accession to the English throne.
There was nothing low-key about this visit: all Oxford was galvanized to put on the best possible show of itself. We have three extended accounts of it, Rex Platonicus (Oxford, 1607) by the University Orator Isaac Wake, in Latin, which is too busy hymning the king’s praises to provide much in the way of useful detail, but evidently did Wake’s career no harm: he went on to be knighted, an ambassador in Venice and elsewhere, and M.P. for the University of Oxford. What he has to say about James’ arrival will give you a flavour of the whole work: certe ingresso iam Jacobo sensit Civitas quiddam se amplius capere quam quod murorum suorum angustiis comprehendi posset, “For sure, now James had made his entry, the City felt that it held something greater than the narrow compass of its walls could contain.” Flattery will get you everywhere.
Anthony Nixon’s Oxfords Tryumph (London, 1605), is as relentlessly panegyrical as Wake, but a little more concerned with the nitty-gitty of the visit, even though Nixon is seriously confused about Oxford geography. But the real gem of a source for the visit is a document surviving in a manuscript in Cambridge University Library, an anonymous account by a “spy” from Cambridge, The preparacion at Oxford in August 1605 against the comminge thither of King James, with the Queen and young Prince; together with the things then and there done and the maner thereof. This Cambridge witness may, according to John R. Elliott Jr. in The History of the University of Oxford Vol. IV (p.648, n.32), have been one Henry Mowtlowe; but apparently Cambridge sent as many as forty spies “to view in secret and note the whole event” staged by their arch-rivals. For whatever reason, The preparacion at Oxford… provides the kind of realistic detail Wake and Nixon meticulously avoided: the King falling asleep in a long theatrical performance, and waking up to say, testily, “I marvell what they think me to be!”; or the hundred or so “scholars” sent to prison the day before the king’s arrival for some kind of “uncivill” behaviour (apparently involving inappropriate headwear) in St Mary’s church.
The King arrived at Oxford on Tuesday August 27th 1605, riding south from his ramshackle palace at Woodstock. The officials of the University and City of Oxford rode out to welcome him on the Woodstock Road in what was then countryside a mile north of Oxford, and is now the northern suburbs where I live. In a “fair meadow” near Aristotle’s Well (which now lies under a house on the corner of Kingston Rd and Aristotle Lane, but I think what is these days the intersection between Woodstock Rd and Polstead Rd is meant, very near the childhood home of Lawrence of Arabia) there was a bit of timeless town v. gown needle as the city authorities, led by the Mayor, attempted to upstage the University, and were put firmly in their places. It’s great to see that certain things (town v. gown; Oxford v. Cambridge) haven’t changed much in 400 years, and I’ve been enjoying imagining all the houses away as I walk the dog, picturing the Chancellor, Vice-chancellor, “the Doctors, Proctors and certaine Senior Masters … upon their foote-cloath [caparisoned] Horses, verie richlye furnished to meete the King” (Nixon), the speeches to the King from University (in Latin) and City (in English), and the presentation of gifts (the City’s considerably more valuable than the University’s), before James and his entourage continued their progress towards the city.
Just outside the North Gate, James stopped to be entertained by the first of a series of dramatic performances during his four-day stay in Oxford. James was very keen on academic debate, less so (as we’ve already seen) on the theatre. What’s interesting about this short performance is that it bears some kind of relation to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In front of St John’s College, which stood outside the city walls, three “sibyls” recalled the prophecy given to Banquo that his descendants, the Stuarts, would rule Scotland, and added their own prediction of James’ glorious future. The connection has been made with the three witches’ prediction to Banquo at Macbeth 1.3 (“Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”), and some have even speculated that William Shakespeare might have been in the audience outside St John’s. From there James made his way across the city to Christ Church, where he and the Queen were accommodated: as they rode from north to south of Oxford, according to Nixon, the left side of the street, between Christ Church and St Giles’ church, was lined with academics in precise order of seniority from Doctors of Divinity at the gate of Christ Church to plain old undergraduates up at St Giles’.
Here’s John Speed’s map of Oxford, as it happens dating to around 1605, though much indebted to earlier maps: south is at the top, so James was approaching Oxford from the bottom right. From St Giles’ to Christ Church is about 1,000 metres.
In total, James spent four days in Oxford, from Tuesday August 27th to Friday the 30th. On the last day, after visiting the Bodleian Library, he stopped in at my college, Brasenose, but I don’t think my roses and thistles can have anything to do with that since in 1605 St Mary’s Entry, while owned by Brasenose, was not an integral part of the College proper, and was let out to tenants. A slightly earlier map of this part of Oxford here, by Ralph Agas, illustrates this, “Brasen nose Coll” stopping well short of “Saint Maries”.
But there’s another possibility. James’ and the Queen’s accommodation was at Christ Church, Prince Henry’s at Magdalen College; in the course of his time in Oxford James visited New College, All Souls’ and Magdalen as well as Brasenose, St John’s and the Bodleian Library. But by far the majority of the king’s time was spent in the University Church, St Mary’s, just across the alleyway from here.
On Wednesday and Thurday, August 28 and 29, James attended “disputations” in St Mary’s, Latin speeches delivered in favour or against propositions by academics in five subjects, Theology, Law, Physic (Medicine), Natural Philosophy (roughly, Physics) and Moral Philosophy. The form of the exercise, formal and rhetorically sophisticated speeches in Latin, had its roots in the medieval university, and reflected the importance that continued to be attached to the fluent and persuasive presentation of academic knowledge, but the topics addressed were entirely contemporary. Since we’re in 1605, that still leaves them, for us, interestingly poised between the familiar and the archaic. During the Physic disputation, for example, the question was addressed, An creber suffitus Nicotianae exoticae sit sanis salutaris, “Whether the often taking of Tobacco be wholesome for such as are sound and in health”; whilst when the discipline was Natural Philosophy a topic of debate was, An opera artis possit aurum conflari, “Whether Golde may be made by Arte.”
James was tremendously keen on these exercises, regularly making his own contributions to the learned disputes, and allowing the sessions to continue in St Mary’s without complaint for as long as five hours: hardly surprising that he fell asleep in the play that followed. But King James clearly left the Oxford men convinced that in the new king they had someone who shared their own intellectual appetites.
Now, my room with its peculiar decorations is in the shadow of St Mary’s church. If the roses and thistles have anything to do with James’ visit (which is undoubtedly a very big “if”, but I’m stumped for another explanation), it may just be that they are part of the general beautification of the city that was undertaken in preparation for the royal visit. However, the Cambridge witness talks, as one would expect, of a polishing up of the externals: “Against the King’s coming to Oxford, it was provided, that all rayles, posts, barrs of windows, casements, and pumpes, should be newly paynted, and all armes were newly tricked. The like was done also in all the streets of the City, and at the severell Gates thereof, with dials and such like; the streets were very finely paved and well swept.”
The decorations in my room are quite invisible from the street, and I can’t help wondering whether this building beside St Mary’s church was prepared for the use of the royal entourage during those two days of “disputation”, for rest, refreshment, or, who knows, a lavatory break. I can’t explain the rose/thistle motif except as some kind of reference to James, while the quality of the carved fauns and the fireplace decoration seem to me to bespeak a room that expected some important visitors.
What I’m letting myself wonder, of course, is whether James VI of Scotland and I of England took his ease, one day 409 years ago, in what is now my teaching room.
But perhaps I should settle for Mr Tumnus.
Dunno much about γεωγραφία…
Behold! A map of the city and harbour of Cartagena, in southern Spain, for your delectation. And it may make things easier later on if you note carefully the position of the island of Escombrera or Escombreras, right at the bottom.
To the Romans Cartagena was known as Carthago Nova, New Carthage, and it was celebrated as one of the very finest natural harbours they knew. It’s easy enough to see why: in the sixteenth century the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria was in the habit of saying that the three most secure anchorages in the Mediterranean were “Cartagena and June and July.” Under the settled conditions of the Roman Empire Carthago Nova was best known for its production of the highest quality garum, fermented fish sauce, an evil-smelling staple of Roman cuisine. That island Escombrera was in antiquity Scombraria, named after the scombri or mackerel from which this garum was manufactured.
But Carthago Nova had had an intense and troubled history, the consequence of that splendid harbour. In 228/7BC a Carthaginian general called Hasdrubal (there were quite a few answering that description) established it as a base for Carthaginian operations in Spain: he named it simply “Carthage”, since Qarthadasht in Punic means “New City”; the Romans called it “New Carthage” to distinguish it from the Carthaginian mother city in North Africa.
New Carthage was the key to Spain, and in 209BC, during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, the 25-year old P. Cornelius Scipio (later and better known as Scipio Africanus the Elder) captured it with a lightning manoeuvre. Henceforth the advantage in Spain, and in the war as a whole, shifted decisively towards the Romans. In 202BC Scipio would crush Hannibal at the battle of Zama: the capture of Carthago Nova was felt to have been a critical step towards that ultimate Roman victory.
My own interest in New Carthage came from thinking about Virgil, not the most obvious route in. But I and Ronnie Shi (remember that name, Classicists, for she will go far) have been writing an article about the harbour in North Africa where Aeneas and his companions find refuge in Aeneid Book 1, after the storm brought about by scheming Juno has blown them off course. Here’s the Latin, and a translation, of Virgil’s description of the place (Aen. 1.159-69):
est in secessu longo locus: insula portum
efficit obiectu laterum, quibus omnis ab alto
frangitur inque sinus scindit sese unda reductos.
Hinc atque hinc uastae rupes geminique minantur
in caelum scopuli, quorum sub uertice late
aequora tuta silent; tum siluis scaena coruscis
desuper horrentique atrum nemus imminet umbra.
fronte sub adversa scopulis pendentibus antrum,
intus aquae dulces uiuoque sedilia saxo,
nympharum domus: hic fessas non uincula nauis
ulla tenent, unco non alligat ancora morsu.
There is a place in a deep inlet: an island forms a harbour by the barrier of its flanks; all the waves coming from the open sea are broken by it and divide as they flow into the distant recesses of the bay. From this side and that huge cliffs loom skywards, twin headlands, and beneath their peaks the broad waters are safe and still. Above rises a backdrop of shimmering woods, a dark forest with quivering shadows. Under the cliff-face straight ahead there was a cave of hanging rock, and within it fresh water and seats in the living rock, the home of nymphs: here no chains moor the weary ships nor anchor fasten them with its hooked grip.
Ronnie and I were intrigued by a detail in Servius’ late-antique commentary on the Aeneid, where he records that some readers wanted to see Carthago Nova, in Spain, behind this description of a harbour near the original Carthage, in Africa. This struck us as quite an exciting idea: a hint of New Carthage at this point of the poem would introduce lots of interesting associations with Scipio and the Second Punic War, the life-and-death struggle between Carthage and Rome that is very much in the air as the ancestral founders of the two cities, Dido and Aeneas, meet and fall in love.
I won’t inflict the details of our argument on you. That pleasure can be reserved until we persuade a journal to accept it, crossed fingers. But I will share just one of the details that persuaded us Servius might have a point–that ancient readers could have picked up a hint of Carthago Nova in Virgil’s African harbour.
At the heart of our argument are resemblances between Virgil’s poetic harbour and descriptions of Carthago Nova in the historians Polybius and Livy. Their accounts are very similar, Livy imitating Polybius, so I’ll just quote Polybius (10.10.1-3). But one clear point of similarity between Polybius’ Carthago Nova and Virgil’s Carthage should be the island that sits in the mouth of the harbour and protects it from the effects of the open sea:
(New Carthage) lies halfway down the coast of Spain in an inlet facing the southwest wind. The inlet is about twenty stades in depth and about ten in breadth at its entrance. The whole inlet serves as a harbour for the following reason. At its mouth lies an island which leaves only a narrow channel on either side into the inlet, and as this stands in the way of the waves from the sea, the whole inlet is calm, except when south-westerlies blow on both channels and raise billows.
It seems clear to us that ancient readers of Virgil would have been reminded of the Spanish port when reading about the African one, although there’s a question where readers of the Aeneid would have got their idea of the layout of Carthago Nova. In Virgil’s great predecessor Q. Ennius, we think, rather than Polybius or Livy, but that’s another story. However, there’s a fascinating wrinkle here that takes us back to the map at the top of this post. At the beginning I called your attention to the island of Escombrera/Scombraria. That’s the island Polybius describes as sitting in the mouth of the harbour at Carthago Nova, and of course it’s that island-in-the-mouth that’s a key point of contact between Virgil and the historical descriptions of Carthago Nova.
But look at the map and it’s as clear as your nose that Escombrera doesn’t sit in the mouth of Carthago Nova harbour, or anywhere near it: in fact it lies a good three miles away.
Now, this isn’t a problem for our argument, because all we need to establish is that Virgil’s harbour looked like (what Virgil’s readers thought) Carthago Nova looked like, and Virgil’s readers would have got their idea of the place not from maps, which in our sense the Romans didn’t really have, but from descriptions in authors like Ennius. But I still think it’s fascinating that Polybius and Livy could have got it so wrong, that the ancient historical record of a location as important as Carthago Nova was so spectacularly inaccurate.
Now the obvious thing this tells us is that the Romans had an extremely limited grasp of geography. It’s clear from elsewhere in Livy’s history, for instance, that readers weren’t interested, and historians made little attempt to interest them, in geographical precision. This isn’t just another example of the practical Romans’ notorious suspicion of the intellect: yes, the Greeks were more into the theory of geography (a Greek word, after all), but both Greeks and Romans lacked some of the basic technical resources that allow the kind of accurate mapmaking we’re familiar with.
Perhaps it’s safer to say, though, that the geographical knowledge on show here is more sketchy than straightforwardly bad. We do, in fact, have an ancient account which places Escombrera in its true position: the Greek writer Strabo, in the course of a survey of the Spanish seaboard, mentions Carthago Nova, “by far the most powerful of all the cities in this country,” and “the Island of Heracles, which they call Scombraria, from the mackerel caught there, from which the best fish-sauce is prepared. It is 24 stadia distant from New Carthage.” A stadion was equivalent to about an eighth of a Roman mile, so that’s about right. In general the ancients knew as much as they needed to know about their physical surroundings: there might even be pockets of quite impressive accuracy, but the pieces were never joined up.
Proving that the Romans were rubbish at geography is quite satisfying, I have to admit. But what I find most interesting, exciting even, about all this is something a bit different. I mentioned earlier the question of which text it was in which Virgil’s readers found what they knew about Carthago Nova. We suspect Ennius’ great national epic the Annales, which will certainly have given space to Scipio’s glorious capture of the city. Reaching that conclusion involves some pretty dry research comparing possible earlier accounts to decide who influenced whom: there’s an appropriately forbidding German word for the exercise, Quellenforschung, sources-research. But in this case, it seems to me, Quellenforschung achieves something remarkable, capturing an individual human experience at a remove of well over two thousand years.
What on earth am I talking about?
Well, it seems clear how the error in the historical record about the position of Escombrera crept in. Because, as a recent Spanish book all about the island explains, “[Viewed] from the innermost part of the bay of Cartagena, the island of Escombreras seems to close off the mouth of the harbour almost completely.” In other words, seen from a vantage point at the southern edge of the city, the island does look like it sits squarely in the mouth of the harbour, and it follows that that is where the original source behind Polybius, Livy, and indirectly Virgil (who for various reasons is most likely someone even earlier than Q. Ennius), must have been standing when they noted down their entirely false eyewitness impression.
So we can tell that someone, sometime sat on the dock of the Carthago Nova bay and shared an optical illusion with posterity. But who was it?
It may at a stretch have been Polybius himself, who certainly visited Carthago Nova in the second century BC. But there’s reason to believe that Polybius was mainly dependent for his account of the city on earlier sources. On whom precisely is a matter of speculation, but there seem to be four contenders: Scipio Africanus himself, who wrote a letter about his campaigns in Spain and at Carthago Nova to king Philip V of Macedon (Polybius 10.9.3); C. Laelius, a close friend of Scipio and an important informant of Polybius (Polybius 10.3.2); or most likely of all, one of two historians of whose work very little survives, but whom we know Polybius used extensively in his own history, Q. Fabius Pictor and Silenus.
Q. Fabius Pictor is an important figure in Roman literature, the very first Roman historian, although his history of Rome was, originally at least, written in Greek, the language of such intellectual pursuits as history writing and geography. Fabius would be a strong candidate for our eyewitness if his history extended down as far as 209BC, the date of the capture of Carthago Nova, and that is far from certain. (To be honest, very little is certain about Q. Fabius Pictor.) Fabius was exceptionally well-connected on the Roman political scene, a member of one of the most prestigious families in a very prestige-obsessed city, and second cousin of one of Hannibal’s most effective opponents, Q. Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, known for his tactics as Cunctator, “the Delayer”. Fabius Pictor had a political career himself, it seems, before turning to writing history with the advantage of his extensive insider knowledge; the section of his history devoted to the Punic Wars adopted a predictably pro-Roman stance.
But my candidate for the man staring out to sea is the Greek historian Silenus. Probably a native of the city of Caleacte in Sicily, Silenus was part of Hannibal’s retinue during his famous fifteen-year campaign in Italy, which started with Hannibal’s departure from Carthago Nova in 218BC, “recording the actions of Hannibal with great diligence,” according to Cicero (Div. 1.49) as he inflicted such catastrophic defeats on the Romans as Trasimene and Cannae. Among other things, the fragments of Fabius and Silenus suggest interesting ways in which the Romans and Carthaginians competed for hearts and minds, both for example keen to associate their side of the war with the hero-god Heracles/Hercules/Melqart, a figure worshipped across the Mediterranean and especially popular among the non-Roman peoples of the Italian peninsula, whose sympathies were of crucial importance in the conflict.
So was it Silenus standing there gazing out at Escombrera in the spring of 218BC? It is the very purest speculation, but one thing that makes me want to believe it is that Strabo (3.5.7) refers to Silenus as “something of an idiotes” on geographical matters, and while the Greek word idiotes doesn’t quite mean “idiot”, it comes pretty close to “hopeless amateur”.
That would be a fair assessment of the original source of the information about the location of Escombrera.