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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
…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:
ΖΕΥΓΟΣ ΕΡΩΣ ΕΥΜΟΡΦΟΝ ΑΕΙ
ΤΑ ΜΑΛΙΣΤΑ ΣΥΝΕΙΧΕΝ
ΩΣ ΕΦΙΛΕΙ ΚΕΙΝΗΝ
ΩΣ ΤΟΤΕ ΜΑΙΑ ΦΙΛΕΙ
Set out as
ΖΕΥΓΟΣ ΕΡΩΣ ΕΥΜΟΡΦΟΝ ΑΕΙ ΤΑ ΜΑΛΙΣΤΑ ΣΥΝΕΙΧΕΝ
ΩΣ ΕΦΙΛΕΙ ΚΕΙΝΗΝ ΩΣ ΤΟΤΕ ΜΑΙΑ ΦΙΛΕΙ
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.
Enjoy the promotional video for this fantastic new exhibition in the Ashmolean, running until January 12. There’s a wonderful collection of artefacts on display, from Pompeii and elsewhere, and you can find me raving about it here, all thanks to a freebie from Sophie Hay. This piece, for example, combines at least three of my favourite things, Latin, Hercules, and piglets.
I have just one bone to pick, and it’s with the encouragement to “seize the day” at the end of the video. Not that you shouldn’t be prepared to commandeer a train if that’s what it takes to get to this show — my problem is simply with “seize the day” as an English translation of Horace’s motto carpe diem, which in the Latin is a much richer turn of phrase. As Tom Holland (another beneficiary of Sophie’s generosity) pointed out to me, furthermore, once properly appreciated the full meaning of carpe diem would serve well an exhibition largely concerned with Roman foodstuffs and sensory pleasures.
Carpe diem originates in one of Horace’s lyric poems, Odes 1.11, and it expresses a characteristically lyric sentiment: live for the moment. “Seize the day” captures that well enough, but “seize” does a poor job, really, of conveying the Latin carpe. To get a better sense of it, Nisbet & Hubbard cite approvingly (it is not always so) the ancient commentator Porphyrio: “the metaphor”, Porphyrio writes, “is from fruit, which … we pick (carpimus) in order to enjoy.”
Now, you might use carpere of picking or plucking a flower, too, and whether the day is a fruit or a flower it works well enough for Horace’s poem, where the instruction, addressed to a woman named Leuconoe, also carries an erotic charge. But I think conceiving of the day as a metaphorical apple or plum (or quince, if you prefer) works best. What an apple on a tree represents is something needing to be exploited in a very narrow window of time, when the fruit is ripe but before it spoils. Life is to be enjoyed now, Horace insists, because who knows what will happen tomorrow.
Needless to say, the notion that life is an apple, and there’s no time to waste before you sink your teeth into it, applies especially well to the unfortunate inhabitants of Pompeii in AD 79.
I do like a chronogram, an inscription (preferably Latin, for me) that encodes a date. In fact so big a fan am I that my one regret, should the proposal to remove the memorial to Cecil Rhodes on the High St facade of Oriel College in Oxford be realised, is that it would also obliterate a rather nice chronogram.
This example at Oriel can illustrate the principle of the exercise. The inscription, E LARGA MVNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES, “Out of the bountiful munificence of Cecil Rhodes”, is in perfectly natural Latin, but if one adds up all letters which could also be Roman numerals (highlighted here: E LARGA MVNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES), one gets 50 + 1,000 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 100 + 1 + 100 + 100 + 1 + 50 + 1 + 1 + 500 = 1,911, or 1911, the date when the Rhodes Building, on the facade of which this memorial is set, was completed.
But it’s another, less controversial, Oxford chronogram I’m concerned with today. Frewin Hall is a grand house in the centre of Oxford now incorporated into an annexe of undergraduate accommodation for Brasenose College. From 1887 to 1907 it was rented from Brasenose by Charles Shadwell, friend of Walter Pater and future Provost of Oriel. Over the main entrance to the house is written FREWINI CAROLVS LAETAT SHADWELLIVS AVLAM, with the numerically-meaningful letters, as I hope you can see at the top, highlighted. 5 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 100 + 50 + 5 + 50 + 500 + 5 + 5 + 50 +50 + 1 + 5 + 5 + 50 + 1,000 = 1888.
This strikes me as a particularly sophisticated example of the genre. The reading of an upper-case double-u as two Vs is witty, and the line is both metrical, a dactylic hexameter, and perfectly symmetrical in the disposition of the Latin words.
Which makes odder the things that have been (and are still) said about it.
An Oxford Childhood by Carola Oman describes the very privileged existence of the daughter of a Fellow of All Souls before the First World War. From 1908 the Oman family rented Frewin Hall from C. B. Heberden, the Principal of Brasenose who preferred to live on the main site. (Heberden was a Classicist, and before becoming Principal my predecessor-but-three.) At a remove of nearly seventy years (An Oxford Childhood was published in 1976), Oman slightly misremembers the details as she describes the inscription (p. 106):
There was never any chance of us buying Frewin Hall. It had belonged to Brasenose College since 1580. By New Year 1908 it had stood empty for seven years. Dr Heberdon, who had taken a lease from Dr Shadwell, who had gone off to become Provost of Oriel, had at last decided against retiring there. Shadwell had been an Oxford eccentric. He had rebuilt the west wing and added a sundial with what was called a chronogram to his facade. This read–
FREVVINI CAROLVS LAETAT SHADVVELLIVS AVLAM
People who knew said he had not got it quite right. Instead of saying that Frewin Hall delighted Charles Shadwell, it was saying that he delighted Frewin Hall. There was no doubt he had loved the house, and particularly his spacious lawn. If he detected a weed he would drop a massive bunch of keys as an order that it be instantly removed.
My question is, did Shadwell, as Oman suggests, really get it wrong? It would certainly be odd if such a perfectionist (the keys), who delighted in the eccentric precision required to compose a chronogram, even making perfectly symmetrical hexameters out of them (it’s hard enough in prose, experto credite), admitted an elementary mistake in Latin.
Let’s look at that Latin. What it certainly means is “Charles Shadwell brings joy to the Hall of Frewin”, and this has not seemed an appropriate sentiment to attach to the front door of a beloved house. Here is someone else, claiming a close acquaintance with Shadwell even (and being spectacularly patronised by the author James Hilton FSA), interpreting it in a way that the Latin won’t admit, but seems more natural: “Charles Shadwell rejoices in Frewen’s Hall.” But that would require the deponent laetor with an ablative, not the active laeto governing a direct object that we have.
I am here to rescue Shadwell’s reputation, in respect of his Latin at least. And I think the key to understanding that laetat lies in Shadwell’s activities at Frewin.
The Hall dates back to about 1600, although its main cellar is much older, circa 1100, a remarkable survival of a wealthy Norman house that stood on the site. (There’s a fascinating analysis of the building here.) The name Frewin comes from Richard Frewin, who in the eighteenth century somehow managed to combine being a physician and Camden Professor of Ancient History, and gave the building a whole new wing. But Shadwell made his own significant additions to the building, bringing in the leading architect of nineteenth-century Oxford, Thomas Jackson, to add a full upper storey, in place of an attic, to the west wing above the main entrance. In November 1887 Shadwell informed the Bursar of Brasenose that he had “now settled with Jackson on the plans for the new storey at Frewen Hall” (details from Elizabeth Boardman’s research here.)
Jackson’s work at Frewin presumably kicked in after Christmas, and thus was carried out in 1888, as indeed the Arabic-numeral date under the sundial on the new facade indicates. (The sundial with its initials of Shadwell and his coat-of-arms is evidence also of his singular self-importance…) Our other witness reads the date in the chronogram as marking the year in which Shadwell took up residence at Frewin, but surely it’s rather to this work of renovation that it refers. The natural way to read Frewini Carolus laetat Shadwellius aulam, “Charles Shadwell brings gladness to Frewin Hall”, seems to me a reasonable expression of what architectural renovation achieves, at least given the constraints of the chronogram form. In other words Shadwell is telling us that he is bringing joy to Frewin, not Frewin to him, but what he’s talking about is how he turned the building into a much happier example of domestic architecture. I agree, as it happens, but you can decide for yourselves if he (and Jackson) succeeded, from images before the intervention (the main entrance is to the left),
The more attentive among you, incidentally, will have noted that the college containing the chronogram of Caecilius Rhodes and the college of which Shadwell became Provost are one and the same: Oriel. Shadwell was Provost of Oriel from 1905 to 1914, and we can safely assume he was responsible also for E LARGA MUNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES, and I would hazard for many other of these monumental brainteasers there may be scattered around Oxford.
Ll. (aged 51)
Some more images:
This is probably just silly. If so, all I can say is that it’s the last desperate days of summer term, I’ve just shared my pitiful lack of acting ability with a bunch of colleagues and students, and my grip on reality is tenuous.
What I’m thinking about a lot at the moment is Hercules and his role as a culture hero, one aspect of which is the way that his name was commonly associated with landmarks. Mountains, islands, geological peculiarities, roads and hot springs all might have Herculean stories attached to them, often to the effect that he had brought them into being by means of his superhuman strength.
The mythical travels of Hercules, in the course of which he overcame various monstrous antagonists and left these marks in the ancient landscape, extended from Spain to the Black Sea, from Pakistan to Morocco. In North Africa the opponent he most often faced in folklore was Antaeus, a gigantic (see below) son of Earth who challenged all comers to wrestle him and drew constant strength from contact with his mother; Hercules defeated him by lifting him up off the ground.
I’m in the very early stages of researching Hercules and Antaeus, with the aid especially of Irad Malkin’s Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean (CUP, 1994), but the thought behind this blog (certainly daft, as I’ve indicated) occurred to me while preparing a poem of Propertius, 3.22, for teaching. In this poem Propertius encourages Tullus to return to his native country, hymning the praises of Italy even as compared with the manifold wonders of the wider world. In the latter category he mentions some remarkable locations in southern Spain and North Africa (3.22.7-10):
tu licet aspicias caelum omne Atlanta gerentem,
sectaque Persea Phorcidos ora manu,
Geryonis stabula et luctantum in pulvere signa
Herculis Antaeique, Hesperidumque choros…
Though you might look upon Atlas who bears the whole sky,
or Medusa’s head severed by Perseus’ hand,
Geryon’s stables, and the marks in the dust of wrestling
Hercules and Antaeus, and the dancing places of the Hesperides…
…there’s no place like home.
All these locations look to me like landmarks that Propertius considers identifiable. Travellers could visit, I interpret this as saying, not just the Atlas Mountains, but also places identified by tradition as Medusa’s head (maybe somewhere in the Gorgades Islands), the dancing circles of the Hesperides, goddesses of evening, the stalls where Geryon kept his cattle (before Hercules killed this monster too and made off with them)–and “the marks in the dust of Hercules and Antaeus as they wrestled”. In the case of Antaeus, the location of his bout with Hercules, as Malkin explains, shifts westward with Greek colonization, Hercules’ victory functioning as a template for Greek settlement in strange places, and continuing to do so as Greeks colonized more and more of the coast. No doubt the other places mentioned were equally mobile over time, even if Propertius seems to be thinking of precise locations in his day.
The travels and conquests of Hercules around the Mediterranean are typically understood by the Greeks and Romans as exploits imposing civilization on the wild or barbarian, and Diodorus Siculus (4.17.4-5) interprets the struggle with Antaeus in exactly these terms:
Setting sail, then, from Crete, Heracles put in to Libya, and first he challenged to a fight Antaeus, renowned for his physical strength and skill in wrestling, who put to death all strangers that he had defeated in wrestling; and Heracles grappled with him and killed him. Following this he conquered Libya, which was full of wild animals, and much of the desert (πολλὰ τῶν κατὰ τὴν ἔρημον χώραν), and tamed them (ἐξημέρωσεν), so that they were filled with farmland and all such other plantations as produce fruit, much of the land being vine-growing, and much olive-bearing. In general Libya, before that time uninhabitable because of the number of wild beasts throughout the land, he tamed and made second to no other country in its prosperity. Likewise by killing criminals and overbearing rulers he made the cities prosperous.
Libya, for Diodorus, is essentially North Africa west of the Nile valley. Hercules tames the land, renders it civilized, making it amenable to human habitation and sustenance. The dominant image of wildness is a prevalence of wild animals, but there is also a suggestion of land that is entirely deserted–something like our sense of desert–that Hercules restores to humanity and agriculture. The most pressing ecological issue in ancient as in modern North Africa was the desert to the south of the inhabitable coastal strip. I think we can understand what Diodorus had in mind when he describes a land that is fertile but needing protection from, so to speak, desertification: Hercules took the desert and made it bloom.
So what were Propertius’ “marks of Hercules and Antaeus in the dust as they wrestled”? Most likely some specific location pointed out to well-heeled Greco-Roman visitors, and Ross McPherson points out below that Pliny the Elder (5.1.3) records about Lixos in Mauretania (modern Larache in Morocco) that there, according to fable, were located regia Antaei certamenque cum Hercule et Hesperidum horti, “the palace of Antaeus, the contest with Hercules, and the Gardens of the Hesperides”, the latter on an island surrounded by an inlet from the sea (the serpentine character of the inlet explaining the serpent that guarded the Apples of the Hesperides). Pliny also records a tradition (5.5.31) that placed the Garden of the Hesperides at Berenice (Benghazi in Libya, formerly Euhesperides), which illustrates Malkin’s point that the scenes of Hercules’ exploits shifted as the Greeks travelled: Pliny writes grumpily about the “wandering tales of Greece”, and the conflict with Antaeus was progressively sited (Malkin p. 181) near Cyrene in eastern Libya, at Barca a little further west, Benghazi, and Tingis (Tangiers), where Sertorius dug up his supposed bones (Plutatch, Sert. 9.3-4, with Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters (2000), 121-6), as well as Larache (where the historian Gabinius, cited at Strabo 17.3.8, placed Antaeus’ sixty-cubit-long bones, possibly a mammoth but maybe a prehistoric whale…). But a location either at Tangier or Larache would suit Propertius’ purposes pretty well, in the far far West of the Known World.
All of which makes the theory I came up with even less compelling, but I’m committed now, so here goes: ancient wrestlers might fight on sand: the Latin word “(h)arena” means “sand”, “a sandy desert” and “an arena”, and the word for the surface on which Greek wrestlers fought might interchangeably be ἡ κόνις, “dust” (cf. Propertius’ puluis) or ἡ ψάμμος, “sand”, while Herodotus uses ἡ ψάμμος to denote the desert of Libya, 3.25, 4.173.* I found myself wondering, and I’ve explained the time of the academic year and my fragile psychological state, whether the marks in the dust left by the epic struggle of the giant wrestler Antaeus and the godlike hero Hercules, a location an intrepid ancient traveller might look upon, at least, were actually the dunes of the Sahara Desert.
* R. Katzoff, “Where did the Greeks of the Roman Period Practice Wrestling?”, AJA 90 (1986), 437-40.
A fond memory of tutoring, back when Chris Tudor, a.k.a. Massolit, was still an undergraduate, so one or two years ago. We were discussing a passage from Aeneid VI, the terrifying initial entry into the Underworld by Aeneas and the Sibyl of Cumae (6.268-81; David West’s translation, lightly versified):
ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram,
perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna:
quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna
est iter in silvis, ubi caelum condidit umbra
Iuppiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem.
vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus Orci
Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae;
pallentes habitant Morbi tristisque Senectus,
et Metus et malesuada Fames ac turpis Egestas,
terribiles visu formae, Letumque Labosque.
tum consanguineus Leti Sopor, et mala mentis
Gaudia, mortiferumque adverso in limine Bellum,
ferreique Eumenidum thalami et Discordia demens
vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruentis.
They walked in the darkness of that lonely night with shadows all about them,
through the empty halls of Dis and his desolate kingdom,
as men walk in a wood by the sinister light of a fitful moon
when Jupiter has buried the sky in shade
and black night has robbed all things of their colour.
Before the entrance hall of Orcus, in the very throat of hell,
Grief and Revenge have made their beds
and Old Age lives there in despair, with white-faced Diseases
and Fear and Hunger, corrupter of men, and squalid Poverty,
things dreadful to look upon, and Death and Drudgery besides.
Then there are Sleep, Death’s sister, perverted
Pleasures, murderous War astride the threshold,
the iron chambers of the Furies and raving Discord
with blood-soaked ribbons binding her viperous hair.
Here you can listen to Matthew Hargreaves reading this passage in the original Latin.
Chris, characteristically forthright even in his youth, offered a searching critique of Virgil’s simile at 270-2. It wasn’t much of a simile, he remarked, if it explicated a walk in darkness by analogy with a walk in darkness. A very good point. Similes are by definition comparisons of different things. A simile is in some respect like the thing it illustrates, of course, the clue’s in the name, but must also, for it to be something different from a literal comparison and do some metaphorical work, be essentially different, too. In “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, it is obviously essential to the impact of the figure of speech both that Wordsworth is not literally a cloud and also that he has in certain (unanticipated) respects behaved like one.
In Virgil’s example, by contrast, the simile seems to be all similarity and no difference, not so much “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as “I wandered lonely as someone wandering lonely.”
My answer to Chris back when–and some might consider this a desperate defence of Virgil–was that maybe this striking lack of figurative colour was actually the point. One of Virgil’s achievements in this book of the Aeneid is to conjure up for the Underworld the eerie character of a place both animate and dead, a space full of shades of former humans who can interact with Aeneas, but whose existence is nevertheless of a fundamentally lesser kind. Aeneas, a live human moving through the Underworld, stands out from its inhabitants by possessing physical characteristics of the living such as weight (as when Charon’s ferryboat, designed for insubstantial shades, ships water when he steps into it, 412-14), colour and even a voice (489-3, Aeneas’ vivid encounter with his insubstantial former enemies at Troy, including the gorgeous image of Aeneas’ fulgentiaque arma per umbras, “weaponry blazing through/amid the shadows”). The difference between the dead and the living for Virgil is light, definition and colour.
The passage we’re looking at here offers the first glimpse of this gloomy, achromatic world. But Virgil calculates, I think, that introducing metaphor to this scene, in other words a simile doing the work a simile should do, will contradict the picture he’s painting of a place lacking something essential to the world of the living; or to put that positively, seeking to convey the dreariness of the Underworld, he lets that lifelessness penetrate deep into his poetry. Virgil introduces a simile, a figure of literary embellishment (metaphor is readily described in ancient literary criticism as a matter of brightening a piece of writing, bringing light to it, e.g. Quintilian 12.10.36), but a simile that itself loses its life and colour as the poem accompanies Aeneas on his journey down to Hell.
I don’t think Chris bought that all those years ago, and there’s no reason why anyone else should.
I gave you Matthew Hargreaves’ beautiful reading of these crepuscular verses earlier. He’ll be reading them again, alongside many more, equally lovely, at King’s College, London on March 28, alongside Dame Emma Kirkby, Lizzie Donnelly, George Sharpley, and the author—and tickets are available here.