Archive by Author | Llewelyn Morgan

A journey to the source of Arnold’s Oxus

[An essay on my favourite English-language poem, Sohrab and Rustum by Matthew Arnold, from the TLS quite a few years ago. I don’t think anyone’s reading it there any more, so I might as well blog it.]

This is a story about a spy, an epic poem and a Central-Asian river. Or perhaps, at root, about British children’s reading matter when Britain had an empire. The epic is Matthew Arnold’s narrative poem Sohrab and Rustum, first published in 1853 in a collection prefaced by a classicizing manifesto that this overtly Homeric composition was clearly designed to exemplify. The spy is Arnold’s great secret, appropriately enough, and we’ll come to him presently. The river is the Oxus, on the banks of which the action of Arnold’s poem is set, but which Arnold makes such a constant accompaniment to the human action that it effectively becomes a third protagonist. The coda of the poem, especially, takes leave of its human characters, isolated in their private tragedy, and follows the onward course of the Oxus to the Aral Sea, a passage that divided critical opinion as sharply as did the poem as a whole:

But the majestic River floated on,
Out of the mist and hum of that low land,
Into the frosty starlight, and there mov’d,
Rejoicing, through the hush’d Chorasmian waste,
Under the solitary moon: he flow’d
Right for the Polar Star, past Orgunjè,
Brimming, and bright, and large: then sands begin
To hem his watery march, and dam his streams,
And split his currents; that for many a league
The shorn and parcell’d Oxus strains along
Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles —
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foil’d circuitous wanderer: — till at last
The long’d-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bath’d stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.

‘Who cares whither the Oxus goes, or what becomes of it,’ complained Charles Kingsley, ‘while Rustum is lying in the sand by his dead son?’

The plot of Sohrab and Rustum is adapted from the most celebrated episode of the Shahnama (‘Book of Kings’) of the Persian poet Ferdowsi (c. AD 1000), the ‘national epic’ of Persian-speaking peoples (although, as we shall see, it came to Arnold indirectly). The hero Rustum has a son, Sohrab, but is unaware of it: Sohrab’s mother, far away in Aderbaijan, has told Rustum their child is a girl. When Sohrab comes in search of his father, and challenges the bravest of the Persians to single combat in an attempt to draw him out, they fight to the death on ‘the low flat strand/ of Oxus’, failing to recognise their kinship until it is too late and Sohrab lies dying by his father’s hand.

Sohrab deserves to be better known, a beautiful poem in its own right but also a fascinating by-product of the British imperial encounter with Asia. It once received much more attention than it does today, a staple of British (and to some extent American) literary education, notwithstanding the confident prediction of Coventry Patmore in 1854 that ‘Mr Arnold has of necessity confined his audience to a small circle of scholars.’ On the contrary, Algernon Swinburne quipped in 1867 that its ‘stream of Oxus’ was almost as familiar to boys at Eton as the Thames, but the strongest (and strangest) evidence for the popularity it once enjoyed is a novel that caused quite a stir on its publication in 1937. The Far-Distant Oxus was written by a couple of teenage girls whose love of ponies was only matched by their devotion to the works of Arthur Ransome, but their title, and quotations at the head of every chapter, came from Sohrab. The child protagonists rename their Exmoor surroundings after geographical features in the poem (‘every member of the gang had become proficient in the art of stilt-walking through the Oxus’), and have adventures that parallel it, including a trip down the ‘Oxus’ to the ‘Aral Sea’.

An issue that came to the fore very soon after publication was Arnold’s sources for the poem. In the second edition of the collection Arnold was explicit about them, printing after the text of the poem a summary of the legend from Sir John Malcolm’s History of Persia and sections of a review of Jules Mohl’s ongoing French version of the Shahnama (translating its more than 50,000 couplets was a life’s work) by the French essayist Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and claiming thereby to have put ‘the reader … in possession of the whole of the sources from which I have drawn the story of Sohrab and Rustum.’ What provoked Arnold to divulge his sources was an at times scorching review of the first edition by an anonymous critic who, alongside qualms about Arnold’s religious commitment, had effectively accused the poet of plagiarism. ‘Some of the passages given by Sainte Beuve from M. Mohl’s version are simply translated, and very closely translated, by Mr. Arnold’ who ‘has not thought fit to offer a single syllable of acknowledgment to an author to whom he has manifestly been very largely indebted.’ The reviewer sets part of Mohl’s translation alongside a section of Sohrab ‘that our readers may judge for themselves.’

Arnold is indeed indebted to Ferdowsi, or rather to Sainte-Beuve’s citations of Mohl’s translation of one thread of the complex textual tradition of Ferdowsi’s poem, but for the reviewer (who turned out to be a friend, John Coleridge) to accuse Arnold of an excessive debt to Ferdowsi is a decidedly eccentric line of criticism when the poem is so overwhelmingly indebted to another poet entirely. In fact Sainte-Beuve’s most significant contribution to Sohrab, aside from the story itself, was his insistent assimilation of Ferdowsi to Homer, ‘l’Homère de son pays,’ and his hero Rustum to Achilles. Arnold’s poem is, in Oscar Wilde’s words, ‘a wonderfully stately epic, full of the spirit of Homer,’ an episode which has transformed the Persian narrative into a model example of Western epic technique. The passage cited by Coleridge as unadulterated Ferdowsi, where Rustum addresses tenderly the unknown warrior Sohrab at their first encounter, is a case in point, an obvious recollection also of a moment in the Iliad when Achilles rejects, with a disturbingly untimely lyricism, the Trojan Lycaon’s plea for mercy.

But Arnold’s engagement with Greco-Roman epic was more profound than the occasional reminiscence of Homer. What he achieves in the poem is in fact a remarkable condensation of classical epic. The sequence of duels with which the Iliad and the Aeneid move towards their denouements, Hector against Patroclus, Achilles against Hector, Turnus against Pallas, Aeneas against Turnus, are boiled down here into one quintessential encounter between, as it were, Achilles and Patroclus, Aeneas and Pallas, a conflict between friends and intimates, here presented by Arnold in the starkest form possible: father against son. The Oxus can be read in a similar way, a realisation of an archetypal image of epic inspiration. When the ancient critic Longinus sought to illustrate humans’ innate attraction to the sublime in literature, he used the analogy of rivers: ‘by some sort of natural impulse we admire not, surely, the small streams, however clear and useful they may be, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and even more than these the Ocean.’ Ocean, the world-circling river and mythically the source of all others, is a common figure for Homer’s transcendent genius. Perhaps Arnold’s greatest achievement in Sohrab is to give a poem which is in the last analysis only the length of a single book of Virgil’s Aeneid the gravity of a full-scale epic, and it is the Oxus more than anything that bestows that (somewhat specious) epic status.

That is one way of reading Arnold’s Oxus, but only one. The Oxus is a counterpart of Longinus’ European rivers, yet it matters that the fit is not quite perfect, that this river is ‘far-distant’ from Europe. For there is a quite different way of considering the Oxus, and of contemplating the genesis of Sohrab and Rustum, that reads the poem not, as Arnold wished it to be read, as a return to universal, timeless principles of literary composition and human value (as embodied above all in the Homeric model), but as the reflection of much more specific cultural conditions in nineteenth-century Britain—a heroic poem with feet of clay. It is paradoxical, but only at first sight, that in Arnold’s Central-Asian river also resides much of the inalienable Britishness of this poetic exercise.

The clue is in a letter from Arnold to his sister Frances (Fan) a quarter of a century after his composition of the poem, describing an encounter at a dinner party with Sir Henry Yule, a great expert on Central Asia and editor of Marco Polo. Yule, a literal-minded old soldier, had queried a reference in Sohrab to a prophylactic against altitude sickness:

But as a troop of pedlars, from Cabool,
Cross underneath the Indian Caucasus,
That vast sky-neighbouring mountain of milk snow;
Crossing so high, that, as they mount, they pass
Long flocks of travelling birds dead on the snow,
Choked by the air, and scarce can they themselves
Slake their parched throats with sugar’d mulberries —
In single file they move, and stop their breath,
For fear they should dislodge the o’er hanging snows —
So the pale Persians held their breath with fear.

Rather than ‘sugar’d mulberries’, Yule’s informants had talked of sucking cloves of garlic. ‘But he had been sure, he said, that I had authority for the mulberries, I was so faithful about Asiatic things.’ And Arnold confirms that he had: ‘Burnes says that the pedlars eat them in crossing the highest passes, but it was curious to find my poetry taken so seriously.’

‘Burnes’ is Alexander Burnes, author of Travels into Bokhara (1834), in which he had reported how travellers in the Hindu Kush ‘carry sugar and mulberries with them, to ease their respiration.’ Travels into Bokhara may be an obscure title today, but it was a sensation in its own time. It was the story of Lieut. Burnes’ expeditions into the little-known regions beyond the north-western boundary of British-controlled India: its three volumes recounted an intelligence-gathering mission in 1832 through Afghanistan to Bokhara, and a journey up the river Indus in the previous year to deliver a team of shire horses to the Maharajah of the Punjab (and reconnoitre the strategic waterway as he went). Burnes’ exploits made him a celebrity on his return to Britain in 1834, and the account he published shifted 900 copies on its first day on sale. In the words of Peter Hopkirk, ‘Burnes’s epic … brought to the reader for the first time the romance, mystery and excitement of Central Asia’—a weighty responsibility, given where that fascination took the British in the following decade. Burnes himself would reap what he had done much to sow, lynched by a Kabuli mob in 1841 while serving as a high official in the British occupation of Afghanistan.

The impact of Burnes’ Bokhara on Sohrab and Rustum extends far beyond the pedlars from Kabul and their folk remedies. To read Burnes’ description of the Oxus after Arnold’s poem is, quite simply, to revisit familiar terrain. A recurrent image in Sohrab, for instance,is of a derelict structure isolated in an uninhabited landscape: a tent is placed on a hillock ‘a little back/ From the stream’s brink’, ‘The men of former times had crowned the top/ With a clay fort; but that was fallen, and now/ The Tartars built there Peran-Wisa’s tent’; and Rustum himself is ‘like some single tower, which a chief/ Has builded on the waste in former years/Against the robbers.’ The model is from Burnes’ account of a section of the route he and his companions followed after leaving Bokhara: ‘There was no water throughout the whole march, and no signs of inhabitants but a ruined fort, that had once served as a look-out from the Oxus.’ Another passage in Burnes treats of the ‘Source and course of the Oxus’ from the Pamirs to the Aral Sea, and is the origin of Arnold’s coda. When it was, precisely, that Matthew Arnold’s imagination was first fired by Bokhara is now beyond recovery, but he seems to have been consulting the first edition of 1834, and it was quite possibly when everyone else was devouring the glamorous young Lieutenant’s memoirs, in the mid-1830s, Arnold’s impressionable teenage years. Whenever it was, Sohrab and Rustum reveals itself as perhaps the most striking symptom, albeit belated, of the intense excitement that Burnes’s mission of espionage provoked in his homeland.

Arnold was happy enough to acknowledge his debt to Sainte-Beuve’s refraction of Ferdowsi, and positively evangelical about the Homeric inspiration of his poem. By comparison, Arnold’s other great model, the source of the Central-Asian scene setting so essential to the poem, goes unacknowledged. An intriguing exchange is recorded between an American scholar, F.L. Jouard, and Arnold’s surviving sister Fan. Jouard was researching another poem with a Central-Asian theme, The Sick King in Bokhara, and was struck by the accuracy of Arnold’s evocation of Bokhara, a place he had obviously never seen. ‘After searching in vain for some time—as neither Arnold’s Note-Book nor any critical works that I know of [in 1906] contain any allusion to the subject—I finally wrote to the poet’s sister, Miss Frances Arnold… In reply, she very kindly sent me the following extract from a work on Bokhara by Lieut. Burnes, adding, however, that it was very doubtful whether her brother had actually obtained the story from that source.’

And yet her brother indubitably had, just as he had obtained a great deal of material from the same source for Sohrab. Fan’s fastidiousness about her brother’s tastes in reading is intriguing, and the recovery by scholars of Burnes’ importance for Arnold (in The Strayed Reveller as well as Sohrab and The Sick King) has been a laborious business (aided by a stirling contribution on the letters page of the TLS on April 11 1936). From Arnold himself, there was little guidance, and none in the public realm: that reference to Burnes in a letter to Fan, a note in his diary, ‘Burnes’s Bokhara ii’, in January 1853, as he was composing the poem, and Fan’s own contradictory indications to Jouard. ‘It was the hard fate of Alexander Burnes,’ according to Sir John Kaye’s forthright assessment in 1851, ‘to be over-rated at the outset and under-rated at the close of his career.’ We might speculate why Arnold denied Burnes the limelight shed so generously on Homer and Sainte-Beuve. Was Travels into Bokhara not so incontestably an example of the ‘great actions, calculated powerfully and delightfully to affect what is permanent in the human soul’ that Arnold wanted his readers to find in Sohrab and Rustum?

Suppressed by Arnold, it could nevertheless be argued that Burnes’ contribution was the one that did most to ensure the longer-term success of Sohrab. Teachers may have set it for the lessons it taught about epic technique, but what did it for the twelve-year old C.S. Lewis was the ambience: ‘I hardly appreciated then, as I have since learned to do, the central tragedy; what enchanted me was the artist in Pekin with his ivory forehead and pale hands, the cypress in the queen’s garden, the backward glance at Rustum’s youth, the pedlars from Khabul, the hushed Chorasmian waste.’ To the authors of The Far-Distant Oxus, the exoticism of the scenery is the key. ‘Why do we pretend that this is Persia,’ asks one of them—to be told, ‘Because Persia is a marvellous country, miles of open land and deserts, magic beliefs in stars, beautiful Arab horses, mystery.’ A sequel to The Far-Distant Oxus was entitled Escape to Persia.

The Hon. George Nathaniel Curzon no doubt encountered Sohrab during his time at Eton. He certainly carried it with him as he pursued an unusually intense interest in Central Asia, the culmination of which, in 1894, was an expedition by the Member of Parliament for Southport to the source of the Oxus in the high Pamirs. In 1888 he travelled on the new Transcaspian Railway through the Central Asian states recently subjugated by the Russians. At Tcharjui Curzon encountered the Oxus, and only Arnold’s epic magniloquence could meet the needs of the moment:

There in the moonlight gleamed before us the broad bosom of the mighty river that from the glaciers of the Pamir rolls its 1,500 miles of current down to the Aral Sea. In my ears were continually ringing the beautiful words of Matthew Arnold, who alone of English poets has made the Central Asian river the theme of his muse, and has realised its extraordinary and mysterious personality. Just as when upon its sandy marge the hero Rustum bewailed his dead son, so now before our eyes

                                        the majestic river floated on

Out of the mist and hum of that low land

Into the frosty twilight, and there moved

Rejoicing through the hushed Chorasmian waste

Under the solitary moon.”

Little did Curzon realise it, but ‘Charjooee’ was where Burnes had encountered the Oxus on his return journey from Bokhara, and thus the source of much of Arnold’s scenic detail: Sohrab had come home, and Arnold’s poem formed the unlikely link between one of the last players of the Great Game, as the imperial manoeuvres between Russia and Britain came to be known, and one of the first, Alexander Burnes.

Peter Levi, a more recent visitor, wrote a very odd thing about Arnold: ‘there are some lines in “Sohrab and Rustum” and “The Strayed Reveller” that give a clearer, sharper, more accurate sense of what central Asia is like than any other sentences in the English language.’ If so, it is a remarkable achievement for a poet who, though he ventured a little way beyond Dover Beach, had never gone anywhere near the Oxus. But it illustrates nicely the point that, of the three great sources for Sohrab and Rustum, Homer, Sainte-Beuve and Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes, it is not at all clear that the last is not the most significant of all.

Rus in urbe

We think of Ancient Rome, if we think of it at all, as a built environment, a grand urban landscape largely generated by the military success of its generals, temples vowed in battle and thereafter a memorial of the glorious event embedded in the city’s fabric.

But some of the monuments of Rome that I find most fascinating are also its least elaborate, for example the hut of the first king Romulus, of which there appear to have been two, one on the Palatine hill and one on the Capitoline. In each case, though, the power of the memorial is paradoxical, deriving from its very lack of grandeur, a tiny thatched hut, compared to the magnificent buildings that surrounded it, the religious foundations on the Capitoline and the palatial structures on the Palatine. The latter hill would give us the word “palace” when later emperors converted ever more of it into their luxurious living space, but Augustus, with the comparatively modest house that started it all, clearly felt the presence of Romulus nearby. Romans were ambivalent about their city, a pride in its wealth and grandeur jostling with an anxiety that the values that had made them great, the humility and self-denial represented by Romulus’ hut, had been lost to them with all their successes in the intervening centuries.

A similar kind of monument, deriving power precisely from its lack of embellishment, is the subject here. In this case it’s a field. The historian Livy mentions an open space within the city, the Prata Quinctia, “Fields of Quinctius”, which lay across the Tiber from main part of the city. As Livy explains, these were believed to represent the tiny four-iugera (one hectare, 2.5 acres) smallholding tilled by one of the greatest heroes of early Rome, L. Quinctius Cincinnatus, dictator for the first time in 458 BC (though everything about Cincinnatus is effectively myth). As such, the Prata Quinctia were the site of a celebrated encounter when Roman officials, in a moment of crisis for the city, came to offer Cincinnatus the dictatorship, an all-powerful but temporary magistracy awarded in emergencies. They found him stripped for farming, and insisted that he don a toga, the Roman equivalent of a suit and tie, before receiving their order. Cincinnatus, now suitably dressed, proceeded to defeat the enemy in sixteen days, resign the dictatorship, and return to planting the spuds, and that made him a shining example of selfless service to the res publica. The urban glories of Rome were made, the implication of the legend was, by the virtues of the countryside.

The Prata Quinctia are named in a couple of other sources, the ancient dictionary of Festus (p.256) and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (18.20), neither of which add very much information, although Pliny (cf. Cicero, De Senectute 55-6) does associate with Cincinnatus the memorable assertion by Manius Curius Dentatus in the third century BC , another famously frugal Roman hero, that “the citizen unsatisfied with seven iugera should be considered dangerous” (Natural History 18.18). There’s some inscriptional evidence from the vicinity of the Prata Quinctia relating to Cincinnatus’ wife Racilia, too, explained by Platner & Ashby. Meanwhile the story of Cincinnatus’ investment at his farm features in Dionysius of Halicarnassus with varying detail and some nice embellishment (“he had no tunic on, wore a small loin-cloth, and had a cap on his head”, Roman Antiquities 10.17.4), and in the Cicero passage mentioned. None of this is to suggest that anyone really believes that the “Quinctian Fields” went back to a semi-mythical figure in the fifth century–more likely the Quinctian Fields helped to generate the story of Cincinnatus and his toga. But the Romans could be persuaded to believe it, it seems, and it had become an extremely powerful national myth, and no one told the story better than Livy (3.26, in Luce’s translation, very lightly adapted), in whose hands it has an explicit moral force:

“Let those hearken to the following tale who prize money above any worldly things and think that great honour and merit fall to none save the extravagantly rich. Lucius Quinctius, the sole hope of his country, was at that moment toiling on his four-iugera farm across the Tiber, which was opposite the present-day dockyards and is now known as the Quinctian Fields. The delegation from the senate found him there–possibly spading out a ditch or ploughing (whatever it was, all agree it was some simple farming chore). After an exchange of greetings they requested he don a toga to hear the senate’s decree, which they prayed might prove auspicious for himself and for his country. “Is everything alright?” he asked in wonderment, as he bade his wife Racilia fetch his toga quickly from the farmhouse. After he had wiped off the dust and sweat from his person and stepped forth clad in the toga, the delegation saluted him as dictator and gave their congratulations. They explained the dire straits into which the army had been plunged and summoned him to the city.”

Cincinnatus is presented by Livy as a man at a remove from the Rome of his day, existing in a kind of self-imposed exile after the disgrace of his son, who has to be informed of the desperate turn of events that required his return to Rome. It’s a reminder from the historian that Rome was a small and vulnerable place in the fifth century, but by Livy’s day this hectare of open ground lay within the built city (in Regio XIV of Augustus’ demarcation of Rome), amidst plush houses alongside other structures, and sat just across the Tiber from the glorious cityscape of central Rome. That must have made this empty space at least as evocative as any building, a surviving piece of countryside offering silent reproach to the proud city all about it. Are your values still those of the hardy peasants who created this city?

The tension between Rome’s wealthy present and its humble mythical origins is a very live one in Augustan Rome. Virgil will test it with Aeneas’ stroll through the pre-urban site of Rome with king Evander, gorgeous effects like passimque armenta videbant/ Romanoque foro et lautis mugire Carinis (Aen. 8.360-1), “and everywhere [Evander and Aeneas] saw cattle/ mooing in the Roman Forum and the chic Carinae.” The Carinae, a cow paddock in Aeneas’ day, was an exclusive residential district in Virgil’s, and there’s a lot of Cincinnatus about Evander and his simple hut, and about Aeneas when he spends a night in it. George Washington was another Cincinnatus, of course.

The essence of the greatest city on earth (as the Romans confidently regarded it) is a patch of open ground. That’s a very Roman paradox, but any park, rus in urbe, communicates some kind of ambivalence about the human structures surrounding it, I suppose. Sefton Park in Liverpool, around which I used to have to run, was designed so that, when anyone was in the middle of it, they couldn’t see the city beyond.

Nevertheless, has there ever been a park as intrinsically meaningful as Rome’s Prata Quinctia?


Many moons ago, offered an apple by a generous stranger in Afghanistan, I attempted to show off my limited Persian vocabulary. “Seeb!”, I said; “seb”, he corrected me, firmly. As later explained to me by Edmund Herzig, this was a good illustration of how Dari, Afghan Persian, preserves many older features of the language, and in particular retains sounds lost in the Iranian Persian that I had learned a little of. The word for “apple”, سیب, is in standard Iranian Persian “seeb”, but in Afghan Persian (and also in my nineteenth-century Persian dictionary) “seb”.

A parallel example, and the subject of this blog, is the word شیر, “sheer/sher”, which means three distinct things, lion(/tiger, cf. Shere Khan in the Jungle Book), milk or tap. In all of those meanings it is pronounced “sheer” in the Iranian Persian I studied, while in Afghan (and some Iranian) Persian the word for lion is pronounced “sher” (to sound like “share”; thanks to Roh Yakobi for helping me here). So in Afghan Persian شیر meaning “milk” and شیر meaning “lion” are homographs but not homophones, terms distinguishable in pronunciation, but not on the page. I’ll explain in a while why this is currently interesting me, but first a couple of illustrations of the play that the similarity and difference of شیر and شیر have encouraged.

The first was given me by Lindsay Allen, a reliable source of fascinating information about Iran. In this case it was that rare thing, Farsi on US network television. A very funny running gag in the comedy series 30 Rock, a TV programme about a TV programme, is an inexplicably successful gameshow called Homonym, where guests are asked which of the meanings of a word spoken by the host is meant, and always pick the wrong one. Homonym is succeeded by Celebrity Homonym, of course, and then becomes “the first US TV show to be broadcast in Iran”:

Presenter: “Next word: sheer, sheer.”

Contestant: “Sure: sheer, like a big cat.”

Presenter: “No, it’s the other one.”

Contestant: “Damn you!” (Lit. “Soil on your head!”)

Clearly the gag here depends on the Iranian Persian for “lion” and “milk” (or “tap”) sounding the same, “sheer”. But another illustration illustrates the potential offered by older pronunciation.

In Rumi’s Masnavi-ye Ma‘navi, considered one of the greatest works of mystical literature, we find the following couplet in a passage insisting on the superior spiritual status of the Sufi saint (1.263):

کار پاکان را قیاس از خود مگیر گر چه ماند در نبشتن شیر و شیر

‘Do not assess the deeds of the pure by analogy with yourself,/ though “lion” and “milk” are similar in writing.’

“Lion” and “milk” are both written شیر , but there would have been no ambiguity in meaning in the thirteenth century when Rumi was dictating his poetry since “sher” and “sheer” were as clearly distinguished in pronunciation as they still are in Afghanistan. The second شیر has to rhyme with the end of the previous half-line, “mageer”, so is “milk”; the first شیر must be “lion”. Furthermore, Rumi’s point clearly hangs on the difference in pronunciation: things may seem similar at the level of appearance, but are in a deeper sense as different as a big cat and milk. A speaker of contemporary standard Persian might not understand the line automatically, however, as for them the similarity of the words for lion and milk is not just a matter of their appearance on the page.

(A kind of riddling quatrain seems to have become associated with this moment in the Masnavi, though it’s not by Rumi. It takes the ambiguity of شیر “milk” and شیر “lion”, and expands on it:

آن یکی شیر است اندر بادیه  وآن دگر شیر است اندر بادیه/ آن یکی شیر است که آدم می خورد  وآن دگر شیر است که آدم می خورد

This combines the ambiguous شیر with other ambiguous words and phrases, so is a challenge to translate. The important thing to appreciate is that you can reverse the order of each half-line: “This one is a شیر in the desert,/ and the other’s a شیر in a jug./ One’s a شیر that’s a man-eater,/ and the other’s a شیر that man eats.”)

It’s time to reveal my interest in this piece of linguistic trivia. In collaboration with an Italian archaeologist of Swat in N-W Pakistan, Luca Olivieri, I’m working on a study of a “Political”, a diplomatic officer of the British Raj, named Harold Deane. From 1895 to 1901 Deane was in charge of the Malakand Agency, essentially in control of relations between the British and the unoccupied territories beyond the official border. So successful was he establishing and maintaining the British toehold at Malakand, the point of access to the Swat Valley, that in 1901 he was promoted by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, to be the first Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province, when the latter was first established. Deane was as tough a customer as that abbreviated CV might imply.

But in an 1896 article in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Deane also has a decent claim to have inaugurated the archaeological exploration of Swat, which through the work of such figures as Aurel Stein and Giuseppe Tucci and the Missione Archeologica Italiana in Pakistan has brought to light remarkable things in the last century. (Deane was close to Aurel Stein, who dedicated On Alexander’s Track to the Indus to him.) The military/intelligence role of this Political Agent and his archaeological interests were essentially indistinguishable: sites were investigated during military campaigns and information about archaeological remains were communicated by agents maintained in the independent territories. But his antiquarian interests also speak to the education and cultural horizons of the men who administered British India’s N-W frontier: Deane’s ground-breaking article ends with his observations on the location of Aornos, scene of one of Alexander’s most celebrated exploits. All in all, Deane represents an interesting figure in his own day and in ours, as we hope to show.

The dedication of Aurel Stein’s account of his exploration of Swat, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus

Deane died in 1908, in his mid-fifties. Whatever else his job was, it wasn’t good for the health. But he had a big fan in Olaf Caroe, himself Governor of NWFP half a century later. In his book The Pathans (1958, 421-2 and 456), Caroe offers a pen sketch of a man he saw as a model of an Imperial frontier operative (the accounts that follow of George Roos-Keppel and Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum are very interesting, too). In the passage that follows, Caroe contrasts Deane, an administrator actively engaged with the people he governed and thus ideal for the frontier, with a more conventional bureaucrat who happened to share a similar name:

“Later, Deane was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Peshawar at a time when the revenue settlement of that district was being undertaken by Louis Dane, an officer of great distinction who in due course became Lieutenant-Governor of the Panjab, but whose lot lay always in pleasant places. Dane’s spiritual home was in Simla and Lahore. One day a naive young Khan [member of the landowning class] in a Peshawar hujra [a guest house, but see this], puzzled by the similarity of names, asked one of the Khalil Arbabs [chiefs] what was the difference between Din and Den. The answer came: “The same as between Shir and Sher, only the other way round.” A pretty jest.”

Deane is the “sher”, Dane the “sheer”. Here I go nose-to-nose with a fellow Classicist, as Olaf Caroe was (perhaps not so unexpectedly) a graduate in Classics from Magdalen College, Oxford. He offers two explanations of the Arbab‘s joke, but clearly favours the first: “sheer” is the Persian/Iranian way of pronouncing the word for lion, “sher” the Afghan, and the Afghans “despise the Persians as soft creatures.” Thus Deane is a tough lion, Dane a soft one.

But I prefer the other interpretation, partly because it is clearly quite a cliché among Persian speakers. We never leave the borderlands of Afghanistan, where “sher” is a lion and “sheer” is milk. Deane is a lion; while Dane is no lion at all, but a milksop.

A nice illustration in itself of that peculiar frontier combination of intellect and machismo.

Forsan et haec olim…

The Pope and I don’t share too much in the way of common interests, but when I was signing off an email to my beleaguered, COVID-confined fellow examiners a fortnight ago, and when Pope Francis was reaching for a point of reference in a recent Tablet interview, we both selected the same moment in Virgil’s Aeneid to quote.

Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit, says Aeneas at Aeneid 1.203: “Even these things will one day be a pleasure to recall, perhaps.” The Pope takes this as a statement of the importance of memory:

What comes to mind is another verse of Virgil’s: [forsan et haec olim] meminisse iubavit [“perhaps one day it will be good to remember these things too”]. We need to recover our memory because memory will come to our aid. This is not humanity’s first plague; the others have become mere anecdotes. We need to remember our roots, our tradition which is packed full of memories. In the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, the First Week, as well as the “Contemplation to Attain Love” in the Fourth Week, are completely taken up with remembering. It’s a conversion through remembrance.

For me it’s more a way of saying, One day our lives will be so much better that we may even be able to look back at our past sufferings with equanimity. Either way, it is something said in misfortune, when we anticipate (without necessarily much confidence) the better times to come.In the Aeneid the words come within a longer speech of consolation (198-207) that Aeneas delivers to his men after they have been driven by storm, raised by the vengeful goddess Juno, to the shores of Carthage.Here is what he says:

o socii (neque enim ignari sumus ante malorum)
o passi grauiora, dabit deus his quoque finem.
uos et Scyllaeam rabiem penitusque sonantis
accestis scopulos, vos et Cyclopea saxa
experti: reuocate animos, maestumque timorem
mittite: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit.
per uarios casus, per tot discrimina rerum
tendimus in Latium, sedes ubi fata quietas
ostendunt; illic fas regna resurgere Troiae.
durate, et uosmet rebus seruate secundis.

Comrades (for we have not been ignorant of misfortunes up to now), you have suffered worse, and to these things too God will grant an end. You have drawn close to Scylla’s fury and her deep-resounding crags; you have known the rocks of the Cyclopes, too. Recall your courage, and banish grief and fear. Even these things will one day be a pleasure to recall, perhaps. Through fortunes of all kinds, through countless hazardous challenges, we head for Latium, where the fates promise us an untroubled home–there it is granted that the kingdom of Troy will rise again. Endure, and preserve yourselves for prosperous times.

We’re being asked to think quite hard about Homer’s Odyssey here, Aeneas’ words strongly echoing those of Odysseus at Od. 12.208-12 as he and his crew were approaching Scylla and Charybdis. But while he aligns the Trojans’ experiences with Odysseus’s, Virgil also draws an important contrast, if subtly. R. G. Austin in his commentary on Aeneid 1 compares Aeneas’ speech with its model in the Odyssey: “…there is a notable difference in tone. Odysseus is unsure of his men, sure of himself, reminding them of his own courage and skill in bringing them out of cruel dangers. Aeneas trusts his men, and gives them credit for steadfastness…” The Romans liked to imagine that such strong social instincts, the subordination of personal ambition to the interests of the community, set them above other nations, Greeks first and foremost. Socii, the word with which Aeneas opens, expresses an evocatively Roman concept of common endeavour. Meanwhile Odysseus could be considered an individualist, since while he did eventually get himself back to Ithaca in one piece, he lost his entire crew along the way.

In broader terms the Aeneid, a story of success (the establishment of Rome) emerging from disaster (the sack of Troy), originally directed at Rome’s recent experience of civil war and the promise offered by Augustus’ rise to power, lends itself to dark moments like our own that need to discern some light ahead. In that sense forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit encapsulates a key message of the poem: this too shall pass. But the emphasis on community and the hope of better times are not ultimately separable: it was Rome’s rediscovery of its common values, so the Augustan narrative went, that brought about its recovery–the refoundation of Rome that had supposedly been achieved by Augustus, and the peace he restored between Romans.

Those are some thoughts about O socii within the Aeneid. But one of the most interesting things about Aeneas’ speech is its afterlife, which I’ll illustrate with some speculation and some music. Henry V’s speech before Agincourt in Shakespeare’s play (Act IV Scene III) is at times rather reminiscent of Aeneas’ speech, delivered in apparently desperate circumstances, evoking community, and thinking ahead to a time when all of it might be nothing more than a fond memory (“Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,/ But he’ll remember with advantages/ What feats he did that day”). Shakespeare knew his Aeneid very well, of course, and drew some inspiration at least for his “band of brothers” from Virgil’s o socii, I reckon:

As for the music, it certainly attests the popularity of Aeneas’ pep talk at a similar time. On this recording, at 24:30 and 28:20, two settings of O socii can be heard, the first by Adrian Willaert and the other by Cipriano de Rore, both dating to the middle of the sixteenth century. (There are also settings here of Dido’s last speech, Dulces exuuiae, Aeneid 4.651-62, and poems of Horace.)

This excellent account from the Dickinson College Commentaries does a better job than I possibly could of explaining how thoroughly the word durate, “endure” (from the last line of Aeneas’ speech), is woven into the texture of Willaert’s incredibly subtle composition (see also Blake Wilson’s longer article on early-modern settings of Virgil). The reason for the prominence given to that particular word is the man for whom Willaert and Rore wrote their Virgilian settings, Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle (1517-1586), a senior figure in the Counter Reformation whose motto was DURATE, and who, on the evidence of medals depicting a storm-tossed Aeneas or similar scenes, associated the word with its appearance in Aeneas’ speech, and equated his own role in the resistance to the rise of Protestantism with Aeneas’ hard-won progress from disaster to triumph. (For an appearance of Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit in a story from the early stages of the N Irish peace process, see here, with thanks to @PhiloCrocodile.)

Well, if we replace Protestants or the Dauphin with a virus named SARS-CoV-2 and the lockdown it has imposed upon us, forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit and durate are both of them quite handy mottoes, and you can even sing them.  

Can gods cry?


My blog poses the questions that everybody wants answered.

OK, maybe that’s optimistic, but I’m going to suggest that the Greco-Roman gods’ ability to weep is not a given, and thus when and how they dissolve in tears can be instructive.

Our text is a powerful scene in Aeneid 10 where the young warrior Pallas, facing his nemesis Turnus, prays to Hercules for success. It’s Hercules he appeals to because, as we have learnt in Aeneid 8, the hero had once visited the kingdom of Pallas’ father Evander (on the future site of Rome) and rid it of the troublesome monster Cacus. By this point in Book 10 we are some years later, and in the meantime Hercules has died and become the god to whom Pallas can direct his prayer.

Here is Pallas’ appeal, Hercules’ tearful response, and the chief god Jupiter’s reaction (10.457-73, accompanied by the translation of Fairclough and Goold in the Loeb):

hunc ubi contiguum missae fore credidit hastae,
ire prior Pallas, si qua fors adiuuet ausum
uiribus imparibus, magnumque ita ad aethera fatur:
‘per patris hospitium et mensas, quas aduena adisti,
te precor, Alcide, coeptis ingentibus adsis.
cernat semineci sibi me rapere arma cruenta
uictoremque ferant morientia lumina Turni.’
audiit Alcides iuuenem magnumque sub imo
corde premit gemitum lacrimasque effundit inanis.
tum genitor natum dictis adfatur amicis:
‘stat sua cuique dies, breue et inreparabile tempus
omnibus est uitae; sed famam extendere factis,
hoc uirtutis opus. Troiae sub moenibus altis
tot gnati cecidere deum, quin occidit una
Sarpedon, mea progenies; etiam sua Turnum
fata uocant metasque dati peruenit ad aeui.’
sic ait, atque oculos Rutulorum reicit aruis.

But Pallas, when he thought his foe within range of a spear-cast,
moved forward first, in the hope that chance would aid the venture
of his ill-matched strength, and thus to great heaven he cries:
“By my father’s welcome, and the table to which you came as a stranger,
I beseech you, Hercules of the stock of Alceus, aid my great enterprise.
May Turnus see me strip the bloody arms from his dying limbs,
and may his glazing eyes endure a conqueror!”
Hercules heard the youth, and deep in his heart
stifled a heavy groan, and shed useless tears.
Then with kindly words the Father addresses his son:
“Each has his day appointed; short and irretrievable is the span
of life for all: but to lengthen fame by deeds—
that is valour’s task. Under Troy’s high walls
fell those many sons of gods; indeed, with them fell
my own child Sarpedon. For Turnus too his own
fate calls, and he has reached the goal of his allotted years.”
So he speaks, and turns his eyes away from the Rutulian fields.

There’s a lot going on here, among other things an assimilation of Hercules to Aeneas, who had also visited Pallas’ father at the site of Rome and enjoyed his hospitality (compare 10.515-7, Pallas, Euandrus, in ipsis/ omnia sunt oculis, mensae quas advena primas/ tunc adiit, dextraeque datae). In addition, though, and this is relevant to the tears, Virgil’s Jupiter recalls in his consoling words to Hercules a very important moment in Homer’s Iliad, when Zeus/Jupiter himself had contemplated rescuing his son Sarpedon, a Lycian warrior allied to the Trojans, from his fated death at the hands of Patroclus (16.419-61). Back then Zeus had been dissuaded from any such intervention by Hera, and that scene had illustrated a theme central both to the Iliad and to the epic tradition as a whole: the insignificance of human life and the unbridgeable chasm that separates suffering mortals and the comfortable and untroubled existence enjoyed by the gods.

The unavoidable tragedy of human life and death is thus what Jupiter starts by reminding Hercules of here. But the name Sarpedon evokes another significant moment in the Iliad, as at 12.322-8 he is the mouthpiece for one of the most memorable statements of heroic values in the poem. Sarpedon explains to his fellow-Lycian Glaucus why they are obliged to lead the fight against the Achaeans:

“Ah friend, if once escaped from this battle
we were for ever to be ageless and immortal,
neither should I myself fight among the foremost,
nor should I send you into battle where men win glory;
but now—for in any case fates of death threaten us,
fates past counting, which no mortal may escape or avoid—
now let us go forward, whether we shall give glory to another, or another to us.”

Human life is incomparably worse than the life of the gods in the Iliad, but the brevity and insignificance of our human existence is also what shapes the heroic ethos, and indeed epic poetry. The inevitability of their death drives the heroes of epic to seek an alternative form of immortality, to compensate for abbreviated lives with the everlasting glory achieved by deeds great enough to be commemorated in song. That immortal glory, an alternative existence, is what Homer’s Iliad bestows on Sarpedon, and the fundamental heroic calculus, fame achieved by bravery in the face of certain death, is exactly what Jupiter is setting out for Hercules in Virgil’s account.

But it’s tears that I’m meant to be talking about.

When he hears Pallas’ prayer, Hercules weeps. His foreknowledge of Pallas’ doom is perhaps divine, but his tears are emphatically not. There was a well-established literary convention that the life of the gods was so carefree, in contrast to the limitless sufferings of humanity, that they could not physically cry. Now, we do see gods crying in Greco-Roman accounts: Artemis even cries in the Iliad after a scolding from Hera (21.493-6), and Aphrodite/Venus, while she doesn’t explicitly cry when stabbed by Diomedes in Iliad 5, does have eyes welling with tears when he addresses Jupiter at Aen. 1.228-9. But Venus is a special case among epic gods, closer in some respects to human shortcomings. In general, also, poetic convention was more rigid than poetic practice, and Ovid, a great manipulator of literary convention, twice asserts the principle that gods cannot cry, at Fasti 4.521-2 and Metamorphoses 2.621-2 (Apollo after killing his lover Coronis): “the cheeks of the heavenly gods may not be wet with tears”, he writes in the Metamorphoses. The passage in the Fasti I discuss in my forthcoming book Ovid: A Very Short Introduction, but the idea was clearly familiar to Virgil’s contemporary readers, and important when we contemplate Hercules, since as a god he really shouldn’t be crying.

Well, the fact that Hercules weeps is a hint, as delicate as can be, that he’s still a novice at this immortality game, only recently made a god, and not yet as free as a divinity should be of emotional attachments to humanity. Jupiter, the seasoned deity, puts Hercules right, teaching him that gods and humans are irrevocably different by virtue of death, and–if the Loeb translation of oculos Rutulorum reicit aruis (10.73) is right–gives him an object lesson in divine indifference by turning his gaze away from human misery in Italy.

So Virgil contradicts the rule that gods can’t cry, and also, in Hercules, allows a human to beat death and secure everlasting life. But it’s by breaking the rules that he achieves this immensely subtle characterisation of Hercules, and also, through Jupiter’s words, how he powerfully reasserts the essential truth of the heroic world: gods are ineffably happier than us, and we will die.

Time out

I had an oddly unsettling experience on Christmas Day. I was standing on a bridge over the local canal, looking down at the canal path. As I stood there, a passing jogger slowed, stopped and stood beside me. When I moved on, so did she in the opposite direction. In retrospect, of course, I realised that she had been concerned I was planning to do something drastic, and I can see how a middle-aged man in a beanie contemplating the canal on Christmas Day might look that way. The jogger was taking no chances, and how very, very impressive that was, whoever you are.

In actual fact what I was doing on that bridge was getting a better view of something I’ve only passed in darkness with the dog, a new, tarmac path the council have been laying alongside the canal. I’ve never had suicidal thoughts or even suffered depression, and in that I know how lucky I am. But I was there on my own on Christmas Day, and this fact still demands some explanation.

Our elder son has special needs, and at home on Christmas morning the stress was considerable. As I tried to explain to our younger son, Christmas can be difficult enough for anyone. But if, like Will, you don’t fully understand money or ownership, among other things, and find it quite impossible to wait for anything you want, a festival at which you’re told you can have anything but not everything, and things like Amazon giftcards arrive that are in lieu of something else that isn’t there, well, it can get quite challenging. Christmas morning was tricky, and when I realised that I had become the focus of Will’s anxiety, I took myself out of the situation for an hour to allow him (and myself) to take a breather and calm down.

I exploited the opportunity to check on the council’s works along the canal, as I’m sure anyone would.

It’s fair to say that the temperature at Chateau Morgan has been unusually high for the last six months or so. We’ve been in dispute with the Local Authority regarding provision for Will after he left school at 19 last summer, and a consequence of our refusal to accept the (in our view, hopelessly inadequate) provision on offer was that he and we have spent a lot of time at home, and Will has been as bored and frustrated with that arrangement as you can imagine. It took me a while to work out why Will said “bad people” to me whenever he saw an Oxford City Council logo, but it was how he’d interpreted his mum’s explanation to him of who we were having an argument with, and why he couldn’t go where he wanted.

Now, though, thanks to an excellent solicitor, we have secured the outcome we wanted for Will, a placement at a residential college where the emphasis will initially be on his skills of communication and independence, thereafter on his capacity for work. Our ambition, needless to say, is to ensure that he is as capable of independent living as his abilities allow, above all saving him from a life of inactivity and boredom. We’re strong believers in the therapeutic power of work, and I don’t know many special-needs parents who aren’t. You can find me getting very irate on this issue here, if you’ve nothing better to do. My interlocutor only meant well, to be clear, but at the time I couldn’t see it through the red mist.

Two weeks ago we were heading for a tribunal with no guarantee of success. Suddenly the Local Authority had accepted our case and Will’s place at the college was activated. Tomorrow he’s leaving home for the first extended period in twenty years. Thinking back to Christmas morning and that problem with waiting, I’ll leave you to imagine how much sleep we’ve got in the last few days, but the good news there is that Will loves the place and can’t wait to go.

This is a fantastic outcome, the very best we could hope for. I am so grateful, notwithstanding our little tussle with the authorities, that our society makes such provision for its most vulnerable members. But I can’t claim to be entirely relaxed about the next few months back here at home. Raising Will has shaped our lives for two decades, the essential feature of our married life, the environment within which his younger brother has grown up. I was saying to someone the other night that I didn’t recognise the person I was before Will was born, and I doubted anyone else could. Tomorrow the focus of our family life will no longer be there. It’s natural to feel some anxiety how easily we’ll settle into “normality”.

There’s a tag of Horace I’ve repeated to myself countless times as a parent. It’s from his ode on the Golden Mean, moderation in all things (2.10), and a level-headed perception of fortune and misfortune is key to Horace’s life advice: sperat infestis, metuit secundis/ alteram sortem bene praeparatum/ pectus. The Latin is beautifully succinct, but in my clumsy English and twice as many words: “The well-conditioned heart in hostile circumstances hopes for, and in favourable conditions fears, a change in fortune”. Our circumstances have turned extremely favourable almost overnight, and I can’t help but feel wary.

This is my 100th blog on this site, I’m alarmed to report, so it feels like a good moment for something different, especially as it coincides with a major life event for all the members of the Morgan family, and one (just one) of the reasons for blogging over the last six years has been to maintain equanimity in sometimes trying circumstances. Dubious theories about Latin poetry will be back soon, no doubt, but right now the dog needs walking.



Backward glances


I’m just emerging from what were possibly the busiest few months of my life, and I’ve a powerful impulse to stare blankly out of a window for an extended period of time. But there’s stuff to be done, and at the top of the list a final version of A Very Short Introduction to Ovid which needs to get to OUP by the end of January. Right at the bottom is writing a blog, probably, but I’m judging it’ll get the writing juices flowing again.

So here’s something on Ovid that’s going into the book, but which I owe to a couple of former students, one of whom was getting married and the other finding material for a poet who was writing a poem for the wedding. The poem, by Ben Bransfield, is a glosa, a Spanish form which is an extended gloss (glosa) on four lines of pre-existing poetry. The four lines are quoted at the head of the poem, and each line in turn is quoted at the end of four ten-line stanzas.

The lines that Ben chose to gloss (the happy couple are keen and intrepid walkers) were these from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (1.493-6):

et modo praecedas facito, modo terga sequaris,
     et modo festines, et modo lentus eas:
nec tibi de mediis aliquot transire columnas
     sit pudor, aut lateri continuasse latus;

And now walk ahead, now fall behind,
now hurry, and now go slowly.
Nor be shy to slip past some of the columns
between you, or to walk side by side.

The first book of the Art of Love teaches its male readers how to find a lover and win her favour (Book 2 explains how to retain her affections, and Book 3 offers comparable advice, or at least claims it does, to women). Here the guidance is to engineer an apparently innocent encounter with the woman one is courting as she strolls in a colonnade, and it relates to the very earliest stages of a relationship.

Ovid returns to this scene in the Metamorphoses, and what he does with it is very clever, very beautiful and very Ovidian, or so it seems to me. We’re in Book 11, at the end of an account of the singer Orpheus which began at the start of Book 10 with the death of his wife Eurydice at their wedding, bitten by a snake. Famously, Orpheus travelled down to the shades in search of her, and played his lyre and sang so beautifully that Persephone and Hades, queen and king of the underworld, restored Eurydice to him, on condition that he walked ahead of her up to the world of the living and never looked back. Of course, Orpheus cannot resist a backward glance at his beloved wife, and she slips away again, down to the land of the dead.

For the remainder of Book 10 we stay with Orpheus, listening to the songs he sings seated mournfully on a hill in Thrace, the familiar stories of Pygmalion and Adonis among them, and it’s not until the following book that we finally take leave of him. Early in Book 11 Orpheus meets his death, ripped to pieces by envious Thracian bacchanals. His head and lyre are carried off by the river Hebrus, still singing mournfully, but his shade is consigned to the underworld (Met. 11.61-66):

umbra subit terras, et quae loca uiderat ante
cuncta recognoscit quaerensque per arua piorum
inuenit Eurydicen cupidisque amplectitur ulnis;
hic modo coniunctis spatiantur passibus ambo,
nunc praecedentem sequitur, nunc praeuius anteit
Eurydicenque suam iam tuto respicit Orpheus.

His shade goes under the earth, and all the places he had seen before
he recognises, and seeking through the meadows of the pious
he finds Eurydice and embraces her with his passionate arms.
Here now the two of them stroll together with steps synchronised,
now he follows her as she walks ahead, now goes ahead in front of her,
and now Orpheus gazes back in safety at his beloved Eurydice.

It’s a very lovely moment. Reunited as shades, Orpheus doesn’t need to worry this time where he’s walking relative to Eurydice or whether he can look at her. It’s witty on Ovid’s part, and there’s human warmth as well. But the scene also recalls that moment in the Ars Amatoria, and the allusion carries at least two characteristically Ovidian implications. One is that Orpheus and Eurydice are back, now that they are united in death, to how they were even before their ill-fated marriage day. They’re lovers at the very beginning of their relationship.

Another implication gives us Ovid at his most self-aware. The Metamorphoses is a poem that delights in disorientating its readers, leaving us scratching our heads where exactly we are in a plot that’s supposed to be moving inexorably from the beginning of time to the present day, and converging on the city of Rome as it does so. At the beginning of Book 11, by means of this reminiscence of the Ars Amatoria, we’re being taken back to a stage in Orpheus and Eurydice’s relationship which predates all Orpheus’ grief and suffering, and that means all the action of Book 10. In fact here at the start of Book 11, with the suggestion that Orpheus and Eurydice are young sweethearts all over again, it’s as if the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses hasn’t happened at all.

Witness to a stoning

Lupus is the Latin for “wolf”, but the man named Lupus is an excellent example of a scapegoat.

Still reading? C. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus, plain Lupus for short, was the unfortunate target of the most celebrated poem written by C. Lucilius, the pioneer of Rome’s greatest gift to the literary world, verse satire. Lucilius’ first satire described how the gods gathered to debate the deplorable state of Rome and pondered an appropriate punishment for the city. Their decision was to take revenge on a representative figure, and Lupus, a former consul and censor who between holding those offices had been convicted of extortion, fitted the bill.

Lupus was a perfect embodiment of Rome’s wider corruption, according to Lucilius’ account of things, and the satire recounted his alleged depravity in some detail. Lupus had died shortly before Lucilius composed his poem, and Lucilius is able to explain his death as the gods’ ultimate decree, a death sentence for the criminal Lupus. Lucilius’ poem only survives as fragments, but Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, his vicious satire on the dead emperor Claudius which recounts Claudius’ banishment from heaven to the underworld, is modelled on Lucilius’ attack on Lupus and probably gives a good impression of its style and impact.

It was a brutal attack, we can be confident of that. When Horace, Lucilius’ successor in verse satire, recalls the treatment meted out to Lupus, his choice of words is significant: “Lupus overwhelmed by defamatory verses”, in Latin famosisque Lupo cooperto uersibus (Horace, Satires 2.1.68). The verb cooperio is practically the technical term for stoning, vividly transforming Lucilius’ satirical verses into stones cast at the malefactor until he dies. Stoning is classically the act of a collective, the people as a whole taking revenge on a single perceived wrongdoer, and that works well for Lupus, an individual at whom Lucilius encourages Rome to direct its anger in order to save itself.

It’s only a step beyond stoning to see Lupus as a victim of scapegoating. This is the psychosocial process by which a group (generally experiencing a crisis of some kind) identifies an individual or another group as the cause of its own misfortunes, and thus feels justified in exacting revenge on them. It seems that the death of Lupus in Lucilius, with which his satirical attack culminates, satisfied the anger of the gods at Rome, and that his expulsion from the collective was a means to resolve Rome’s crisis. This is a pattern of behaviour familiar enough to the Romans, a people with a strong collective ethos who also suffered plenty of crises. Turnus in Virgil’s Aeneid, the individual whose death will end the conflict between the future components of the Roman people, figuratively ending a civil war, looks a lot like another scapegoat. One difference between Virgil and Lucilius is perhaps that Virgil was more aware of the sacrificial logic of his story.

But scapegoating is also a common feature of our everyday social life. Anyone who has experienced an intensely communal environment — a school is a good example, or an archaeological dig — will recognise the tendency for feelings of dissatisfaction and stress to find a target in an individual who in some way stands out from the group. Many of us will have been that victimised person at some time or another. Many more of us will have done the scapegoating, whether we’re aware of it or not. A vivid memory of my own from school is of being in a group of boys in the playground making merciless fun of another boy. I realised afterwards that I had no idea why I had been doing it (the boy being bullied was my friend, for God’s sake) and it set me thinking hard about what had come over me. I learned something important about my capacities, about the power of the need to belong and what it can encourage you to do, and that is no doubt why I still remember so clearly an event from 35 years ago, and still feel terrible about it.

A long and self-indulgent preamble, but some of you may understand why this of all topics is occupying me at the moment. I witnessed on Twitter a few days ago a textbook case of scapegoating, a marginalised group of people projecting resentment they very justifiably feel onto an individual irrationally identified as powerful and malign. The response to an innocent tweet had all the hallmarks of a scapegoating — the mobbing, the wildly disproportionate outrage, the unconvincing attempts to explain the behaviour in rational terms.

Let me say this again. I recognise scapegoating not because I can see the Romans doing it in their literature. I recognise it because I’ve done it myself. It is, in a terrifying way, the most human thing to do, answering a deep herd-instinct for self-preservation. But it is the very ugliest of things, too, this irrational aggression directed against an innocent.

So, a thought.

If you and a lot of other people are very, very angry with an individual.

If you can’t quite call to mind what exactly it is, the heinous thing that this person did to you.

If what’s bothering you, when you reflect on it, is really something else entirely.

If, as you are pillorying your target, you look around and the people joining in the attack are quite similar to you.

If it’s kind of intoxicating, too, this righteous pursuit of the one we all identify as the malefactor.

There’s a word for it, and you should stop.

Dear Sir Aurel Stein

Mary Amps 1 cropped

Lansdown Park


June 26th 1929

Dear Sir Aurel Stein,

I have just finished “On Alexander’s Track Of The Indus”. It has recalled many pleasant memories of days on the Frontier & many of the people you mention. My husband built the new British Legation in Kabul & was up there for five years.

I enclose a few photographs he took at Bamian. I thought you might care to see them. If you would like copies I will have enlargements properly done for you, there are a few more I will look up, but none giving the faithful detail of Monsieur Hackin’s in the Guimet Musée Paris. He very kindly showed me his collections last year.

I have never been lucky enough to get up to Bamian British ladies were not encouraged to travel in Afghanistan & quite rightly but I regret Bamian & the Moving Sands. I met you at Government House Peshawar just before you left for Swat with the Metcalfes.

We hope to be at the dinner of the Central Asian Society next Wednesday, (my husband gave a lecture a semi-private one to the Cen. As: Soc: last year on his return from Kabul) & we are hoping to have the great pleasure of meeting you there.

May I say with what pleasure I have read your books though my scientific knowledge is lamentably small.

Yours v. truly,

Mary Amps

I am approaching my 100th blog on this site, an alarming thought, but this one takes me back to two of my very first.

Back in 2013 Dilek Taş, a Turkish researcher I was helping, had been investigating the Aurel Stein archival material in the Bodleian Library. There she came across some photos of Bamiyan that had been sent to Stein, and Dilek thoughtfully shared them with me. The late 1920s were an interesting time in Afghanistan, radical reforms by the modernising king Amanullah followed by a rebellion by Habibullah Kalakani–known less respectfully as Bacha-ye Saqao, “Son of a Water-carrier”, and more respectfully as King Habibullah II–and Amanullah’s overthrow. I wrote two blogs about the photos as I learned more about them. You can read here about life in the British Legation in Kabul as a civil war raged around it, and the first humanitarian airlift (and see some film of all that, too); and here about Mary Amps’ successful later career as a breeder of (appropriately) Afghan Hounds.


The Legation party in a 1926 Wolseley tourer, with the larger of the Buddhas of Bamiyan behind them.

Things would’ve been a whole lot easier in 2013, and a bit less fun, if I’d known about the letter I’ve transcribed at the top, sent by Mary Amps in 1929 along with the photographs. I didn’t find it then partly because the Special Collections of the Bodleian were at that time in the process of being rehoused (hence among other things Dilek being allowed to access the original photos, which seems pretty tricky now), but mainly because I’m a Classicist who doesn’t have the faintest clue how archives work.

What does Mary Amps’ letter tell us, though? It confirms that the Ampses, Mary and Major Leon Williamson, left Afghanistan in 1928, thus were not caught up in the airlift. It also squarely contradicts a suspicion I had had that Mary Amps herself was the figure third from the left in this photo:


In actual fact, as Mary explains, she didn’t have any opportunity to travel around Afghanistan while based in Kabul. The male residents of the Legation certainly did: I’ve had the good luck of seeing two albums of photos of Afghanistan taken by the head of the Legation, Sir Francis Humphrys, and now in the possession of his grandson. I know who the central figure is in this image, Sheikh Mahbub Ali Khan, Oriental Secretary at the Legation, and talk about his later life here, but I now have very little idea who else is in the photo aside from the Buddha himself.

Something else the letter confirms, if it needs confirming, is that in the 1920s Bamiyan was the place every foreigner in Afghanistan wanted to visit. Monsieur Hackin, who showed Mary Amps his photographs of Bamiyan in the Musée Guimet in Paris, is Joseph Hackin, later the director of the French archaeological mission in Afghanistan (DAFA), who, with his wife Ria Hackin (French women evidently were allowed to travel), knew Bamiyan well. Here’s one of Hackin’s photos from a later visit, an excellent one: Jean Carl (a friend and colleague of the Hackins) abseiling down the larger Buddha.

Jean Carl on the Buddha

The other site Mary regrets not visiting, “the Moving Sands” or Reg-e Rawan (ریگ روان), wasn’t familiar to me, but it was vividly described, and its celebrity explained, by Alexander Burnes in the 1830s (and by Babur before him), and here is contemporary film of the place.

To me personally what the letter revealed was that interests of mine that I had thought were separate were in fact intertwined. The motivation for Mary Amps’ letter to Aurel Stein, and the photos enclosed, turns out to have been Stein’s On Alexander’s Track to the Indus, Stein’s account of his travels in Swat in 1926, the book that took me to Swat last summer. Her letter in fact intersects with the early part of the book, where Stein meets Sir Francis Humphrys in Peshawar before motoring up the “once blood-soaked heights of the Malakand” and into independent Swat with Herbert Metcalfe, Political Officer for the British territories in this section of the Frontier. Well, the Ampses were also at Government House when Stein was staying there. Mary Amps’s letter to Stein is a piece of fan mail, then, but it’s also clear that this cadre of Frontier operatives was small, and its members knew each other pretty well.

I belatedly discovered this letter pursuing a request from a graduate student for the photos Dilek had found (and it was an opportunity to give myself a break from Ovid, it is true), but it’s all jolly serendipitous, because I think Mary Amps’s letter will be where I start my Gandhara Connections lecture in a month’s time.

A photograph I missed in 2013 (from microfilm, hence the poor quality), featuring Mahbub Ali, A. N. Other, and the smaller Buddha.

Graveyard Greek

…was the heading The Times gave the letter Armand D’Angour and I wrote to them, a response to their article on a “puzzling” Greek inscription on the tombstone of Cecil Headlam, a successful author and cricketer, in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, Hothfield, Kent. Since Greek script is incompatible with The Times’ computers, our answer to the “mystery” is lacking some detail, so I’ll set it out properly here. You’ll have to work out what in it is Armand’s and what mine, and I’ll kid myself that you’ll find that difficult.


Here is a good image of the inscription from Kent Online, where the story seems to have started:

As we said in the letter, a couple of observations are necessary before one can set about interpreting the text. Patrick Kidd, quoted in The Times article, spotted the misspelling in the second line, ΣΓΝΕΙΧΕΝ for ΣΥΝΕΙΧΕΝ, and Armand and I (and no doubt countless others) realised that the L in what looks like ΚLΙΝΗΝ in the third line cannot be right as L is not a Greek letter. It’s Ε, and the word is ΚΕΙΝΗΝ, “that woman” or “her”. It’s hard to be sure from the photo how Ε has become L, but it may be erosion of the stone, lichen concealing the upper arms of E, or another mistake in the carving like the Γ in ΣΓΝΕΙΧΕΝ.

A final piece of useful information is that Cecil Headlam’s wife was named Mary May.

This leaves us with the following text:





Set out as



this is more obviously a piece of verse, an elegiac couplet standard for an inscription of this kind.

Decapitalising, we have:

ζεῦγος ἔρως εὔμορφον ἀεὶ τὰ μάλιστα συνεῖχεν

    ὡς ἐφίλει κείνην, ὣς τότε Μαῖα φιλεῖ.

We translate this as “Love always bound together the lovely union to the utmost:/ as he loved her, so in turn May loves him.”

The most difficult part of the text is the τότε, “then”, “next”, as discussed on Twitter here. But the gist of the inscription remains perfectly clear, and it’s a touching expression of love, not a puzzle or code.

I’m not at all sure what follows will cast any light on τότε or any other aspect of the inscription, but I discovered a bit more about Mary May and Cecil Headlam while pondering this epigram, and it makes for some interesting social history.

Mary May Headlam, née Fraser (on 16th July 1874, I think, in Inverness), was first married, to Edmund Hardie Elles, on 30th November 1897 at St John’s Church in Peshawar, on the North-West Frontier (a building I tried and failed to visit last summer). They lived thereafter in Peshawar, Kolkata and various places in southern England. On the death certificate of one of her daughters (from as recently as 2004) Mary May is described as a book indexer and Edmund as a stockbroker.

But The Times has been concerned with Cecil and Mary May before. On 19th November 1912 it reported on Edmund Elles’ petition for divorce:

The co-respondent [Cecil Headlam] first met the parties in 1904 and became an intimate friend. In 1911 the petitioner [Edmund Elles] became suspicious of the co-respondent’s relations with the respondent [Mary May], who admitted affection for him and promised not to see or correspond with him. The petitioner left shortly after on a business visit to India. On his return to England he discovered that the respondent had left their children and was living with the co-respondent at the Grand Hotel Cosmopolite du Golfe at Wimereux, in France… Mr Justice Bargrave Deane pronounced a decree nisi, with costs against the co-respondent, and gave the petitioner the custody of the children of the marriage.

Divorce in 1912 (the decree nisi was granted on 18th November) was a very big deal indeed. There is an account of “Le Divorce, Edwardian Style” here, and the divorce of Edmund and Mary May Elles exemplifies what Evangeline Holland describes. Cecil and Mary May’s adultery was a scandal. As it happens, the census of 1911 seems to capture Mary May Elles at home with her two daughters, 9 and 5, Edmund Elles absent and presumably in India, shortly before her departure for the Pas de Calais. One wonders if she ever saw her daughters again.

Mary May and Cecil were married in 1913 (Edmund remarried in 1915). Cecil died at Hothfield on 12th August 1934, after which Mary May becomes quite hard to trace. Cecil’s elder brother Horace was married to another Mary whose dates are exactly the same as Mary May, which doesn’t help. But I think she dies at Worthing in 1959.

Does that further information have any bearing on our interpretation of a Greek epigram? It gives it some kind of context, I think, and that’s probably where I should leave it: this “lovely union” would not have seemed so to many of the Headlams’ contemporaries. But I’ve an impulse to see in the τότε, and the peculiar expression of the second line, some reflection of the experience of a married woman loved but unable to return that love until marital breakdown meant she could.

Maybe someone else can do better.

Pesh fire engine2