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 “was himself particularly fond of writing Alcaic odes after the model of Horace” (Sandys in an earlier eulogy in the TLS August 2, 1917 p.369). 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. In letters to Sandys he described the view from the villa in a couplet adapted from Epistles 1.10, one of Horace’s most appealing poetic letters: Prospiciens Anienis aquas, et Tiburis umbram,/ Excepto quod non simul esses, cetera laetus, “Looking out over the waters of the Anio and the shade of Tivoli,/ in all respects happy except that you are not with me” (cf. Epist. 1.10.50). This intense identification with Horace is a feature of his afterlife, really unlike any other ancient poet.

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 (I seem to share Steele’s taste in Horatian verses) 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.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

One response to “The Song of the Allobroges”

  1. Allan Hands says :

    Another magical post! The reference to Daphne carries a lot of thematic weight and is well placed at the end, like a dab suture.

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