Archive by Author | Llewelyn Morgan

West is East & East is West

We all have nostalgic memories of the time before Covid, our own private summers of 1914. In my case it’s a trip I took on the coattails of the Oxford Modern History Faculty, and in particular of Abigail Green and Faridah Zaman, to Woking, where we saw the oldest purpose-built mosque in the country (once part of Gottlieb Leitner’s Oriental Institute) and heard from Tharik Hussain about an amazing community history project, Everyday Muslim, led by Sadiya Ahmed. We rounded off the day with a visit with Tharik to Brookwood Cemetery.

Many things I saw and heard and discussed on that day stick in my mind, and I remember also that the weather was dreadful, nothing like the summer of 1914, but something I really haven’t stopped thinking about since is the beautiful Parsi (Zoroastrian) section of the larger cemetery at Brookwood. I’m writing about it now (the trip was back in February) because I’m pondering a lecture I plan to give on Classics and British India; also, though, because of things said in the context of the 2499th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae to do with the Greek/Persian conflict as an archetypal assertion of (superior) West v. (inferior) East. What I offer here is something to lob into that pot, perhaps, but I hope that what emerges most strongly is the respect of this complete outsider for the longstanding Parsi community in this country, and for the power of its cultural expression.

I return to the simple visual impact of the Parsi cemetery, hard to capture in writing. Here, though, is a clip from The Sphere, a long-discontinued Empire-wide newspaper which on July 13th, 1901 welcomed the consecration of the cemetery (the Parsee Burial Ground had been established in 1862, so this was, I suppose, a reorganization of the space on a more formal basis) with the following report:

From the British Newspaper Archive

At the heart of the cemetery stands the tomb (on the left) of Nowrosjee Nashirwanjee Wadia, a leading light in the Bombay cotton industry (The Times April 24, 1952, p.6), and it is a replica of Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae, establishing an Achaemenid theme further illustrated in the Sphere report by architecture and architectural decoration evoking Persepolis. The tombs of the Tata family that now mark the boundary to the avenue similarly (the one on the left is very like the Wadia tomb without the elevation):

The symbolism of this style of funerary architecture is powerful and clear, a claim to cultural continuity with the Ancient Persian builders of Persepolis and Pasargadae. The Parsis are an Indian minority, concentrated particularly in Mumbai, who trace their descent from Zoroastrians who left Iran in the wake of the Arab conquest, or that is the tradition. The religion they profess is of enormous antiquity in Iran, and while there is debate whether the Achaemenid kings themselves observed anything strictly definable as Zoroastrianism, Parsis can reasonably claim religious and cultural community with that early period of Persian history.

There is an excellent collection of essays on Zoroastrianism in M. Strausberg and Y. S.-D. Vevaina, The Wiley Companion to Zoroastrianism, which I’m currently part-way through. One of the editors, my colleague Yuhan Vevaina, also replied to a typically ill-informed enquiry from me about Brookwood with some fascinating scholarship on other Achaemenid revivals in modern times, one of them a close parallel to what I’m talking about here.

R. Schmitt and M. Stolper, “An Old Persian cuneiform inscription on a tomb in the Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 136 (2016), 591-601, is a lovely thing, a scholarly edition of a Persian cuneiform text composed for a mausoleum built less than a century ago. The tomb, in an Achaemenid style of architecture and decoration, was constructed, and the text presumably composed, between 1922 and 1924 for Phirozshaw D. Saklatvala, a representative of the interests of the Tata family (to whom he was related) in the United States. It holds Phirozshaw and his wife Mae, who died in 1934 and 1939 respectively, Phirozshaw’s brother Behram (d. 1944), and an infant daughter of the Saklatvalas, Jerbai, who died in 1920 or 1921, and thus, rather poignantly, motivated the construction of the tomb from 1922. The mother of the Saklatvala brothers, also Jerbai, is buried at Brookwood, as is another brother, Shapurji, who was twice MP for Battersea North, representing the Communist Party. Here are the Tata mausolea again, and Jerbai is the reclining figure on the right beyond the stone pergola–Shapurji is also commemorated there:

The New York Saklatvala tomb is another piece of funerary architecture making powerful use of Achaemenid models, then, and there is every reason to believe it drew some inspiration from Brookwood. N. N. Wadia’s tomb doesn’t feature cuneiform, but it does imitate in its main inscription the style of Achaemenid monuments: I AM NOWROSJEE NASHIRWANJEE WADIA/ OF THE ANCIENT ARYAN RACE OF PERSIA/ A CITIZEN OF THE LOYAL TOWN OF BOMBAY/ WHO LIE HERE PEACEFULLY UNDER/ THE FAR OFF SKY OF WIDE FAMED BRITAIN.

What Yuhan also pointed me towards was discussion of “Neo-Achaemenism” within Iran, where it carries a significant extra charge. A lot of attention is given to Persepolis ’71, the spectacular performance staged by the last Shah in 1971, featuring a pageant of Iranian history back to the Achaemenids, to mark 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. A speech by the Shah before Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae, with an audience of heads of state from across the world, kicked proceedings off. The Shah was claiming a status for his country in world affairs, a Great Civilisation to compete with others, based on the grandeur and antiquity of Ancient Iranian culture in particular. As such, the narrative presented sidelined the Islamic history of Iran, and that, alongside the expense and general excess of Persepolis ’71, ended up fuelling opposition to the Shah’s regime, leading ultimately to the Islamic Revolution at the end of the decade.

Talinn Grigor reads Persepolis ’71 as a kind of internalized Orientalism, Western perceptions of Iranian history adopted by the Shah of Iran, then fired back at a Western audience as a plea for acceptance. (Something somewhat similar is happening on Afghan banknotes, I suggested a few years back.) In contrast, Neo-Achaemenism in Parsi culture lacks the essential controversy of the Shah’s gesture, there being no profound religious tension in a Parsi identity rooted in Achaemenid Persia. But there are still ways of looking at N. N. Wadia’s tomb that put less emphasis on the archetypal conflict of Greeks with Persians, the original assertion that East is East and West is West, and more on the commonality fostered by a shared focus on these ancient events.

The observation I’d make is a bit similar to Grigor’s, that to take Achaemenid Persia as one’s point of reference intersects with significant British or Western myths of origin. That includes the Persian Wars, of course, but also Alexander the Great, who went to Pasargadae to pay his respects to Cyrus, and burned Persepolis to the ground, but for our purposes was also a figure who played a very important role in British Imperial perception of India, and self-perception of their own role there. Lugubelinus has had a lot to say on this matter in the past, but try this hat for size. In other words, Achaemenid Persia is the image of Iran most familiar, and interesting, to the West, too. What gives this thought some force is that the Parsi community was one of the most successful communities within British India, and the most loyal (as N. N. Wadia says of Bombay), commercially and politically integrated with the British rulers of India to a greater degree than any other, hence (among other things) the strong Parsi presence in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The claim to Achaemenid heritage on Wadia’s tomb and elsewhere in the cemetery is proud and assertive, then, but it also grants the Parsis a role in the grand Imperial story of ancient origins.

We can sharpen that point, though with less precision than I imagined in the first version of this blog. The article in Encyclopaedia Iranica on “PASARGADAE”, by D. Stronach and H. Gopnik stresses, perhaps overstresses, the debate surrounding the identity of the site, and the tomb at the heart of it. The Tomb of Cyrus, the model for N. N. Wadia’s tomb, was not identified as such to general satisfaction, they suggest, until George Nathaniel Curzon’s Persia and the Persian Question in 1892, and then the publication of Ernst Herzfeld’s doctoral dissertation in 1908. Curzon devotes twenty scholarly pages of his Persia and the Persian Question to Pasargadae (Vol. 2, 71-90), and fifteen of them to the identity of the Tomb which follows from the first (the evidence is primarily in the Alexander historians): I can offer you the option of a scan from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, formerly the Viceroy’s residence, or from the library of the Archaeological Survey of India. If his identification of the tomb had been as seminal as Gopnik and Strobach suggest, that would be very close in time to the construction of Wadia’s tomb in 1900, and the contribution to an arch-imperialist and indeed Viceroy of India would be interesting.

In actuality, however, as Lindsay Allen has pointed out to me, there is good reason to believe that the tomb at Pasargadae would have been confidently identified as Cyrus’s in certain circles earlier than this. Once again, Talinn Grigor has a very interesting article, “Parsi patronage of the Urheimat”, Getty Research Journal 2 (2010), 53-68, on Indian Parsi involvement in cultural and political developments in Iran in the nineteenth century. Her marvellous survey of what books Parsi boys might have encountered at Elphinstone College in Bombay (which we can certainly assume was N. N. Wadia’s alma mater) includes at least three works that toyed with, or firmly asserted, that it was Cyrus’ tomb, James Morier’s Journeys through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor (1812), Robert Ker Porter’s Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia (1821), and James Fergusson’s Palaces of Nineveh and Persepolis Restored (1851). Here is the building as sketched by Ker Porter:

As Grigor puts it, though, “Educated urban Parsis, who admired and wrote about Iran’s ancient heritage, predominantly read European literature found in British institutions” such as the library of Elphinstone College. It follows then that, even as they recovered their Achaemenid heritage, they did so in works that typically pursued the identification of Pasargadae out of a Western, and classicizing, preoccupation with those places that were relevant to Greek history. Wadia’s proud assertion of independent Persian identity, in other words, also expresses, explicitly in his own voice but implicitly too, a claim to belong. Being mischievous, the Tata purchases of Corus (British Steel) and Jaguar Land Rover might, if we insisted on reading Thermopylae etc. as a charter for perpetual East/West conflict, be Persia’s belated revenge for Salamis. Or you could rather say that for Nowrosjee Nashirwanjee Wadia there simply was no ongoing conflict between East and West, Persian and Greek, just the one shared history.

It occurs to me that I’ve pondered before both the power of Zoroastrian imagery, and its capacity to resolve cultural difference: On St. George and his day. The dragon-slayer is not a bad story to share, either.

Deal or no Deal

I’ve just spent a very pleasant week in East Kent, and evidently didn’t manage to switch off entirely during our holiday. Alone of the family I trudged around Richborough Castle, readily imagining the daunting quadrifrons arch topped with a triumphal statue that welcomed visitors to the province of Britannia and marked the start of Watling Street; and its demolition a couple of centuries later when the current structure, a fortress against Saxon raiding parties, replaced the previously bustling town in the troubled Third Century.

Richborough, in antiquity Rutupiae and variants, could stand for Britain as a whole (Lucan 6.67), and was famous in its own right for oysters (Juvenal 4.141), as Whitstable just along the Kent coast is today. It was probably where part of the invading army in AD 43 originally came ashore, an event that would have fixed its status as the official gateway to Britannia.

But there had been earlier Roman invasions of Britain, of course, those undertaken by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC, and since we happened to be staying close to the front at Deal and Walmer, historically leading candidates for Caesar’s landing spots, I found myself also pondering where they had actually been. In particular, I found THIS, an article in Current Archaeology from a couple of years ago that got some attention in the newspapers at the time. Its essential claim is that interesting archaeological discoveries at Ebbsfleet, some way north of Deal, point to that location as Caesar’s landing place in 54 (it expresses no opinion about 55). This sent me back to Caesar’s account of his expeditions in Books 4 and 5 of his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, and I found myself unconvinced. I’ll set out here what I found unpersuasive about the Ebbsfleet theory, a lot of it relating to Caesar’s own account of things, and maybe also to the importance of studying texts as texts.

Let’s start with that account. Caesar landed in Cantium, Kent, twice, in August 55 and a year later in July 54; his accounts of both invasions are at BG 4.20-36 and 5.5-23. The first invasion, little more than a reconnaissance mission, involved fierce conflict at the point of landing without any significant penetration beyond the shore, while the second saw the Roman forces marching as far as Cassivellaunus’ capital beyond the Thames somewhere in Hertfordshire.

The descriptions of the actual landings are what are at issue here, though, and they are as follows:

In 55 Caesar’s warships and transport craft cross without difficulty from the Pas de Calais toward the White Cliffs, but Caesar realises that a landing there would leave them badly exposed to attack (British warriors were seen massed on the heights), so they move up the coast (“about seven miles”, 4.23.6) and land where the coast is apertum et planum (4.23.6), “open and flat”, both adjectives implicitly in contrast with what he had faced at the cliffs. The landing is opposed by the British and there is fighting on the shore before the Romans can establish themselves. In 54 Caesar sets off with a much larger fleet (over 800 boats in total, he claims, at 5.8.6), but the wind drops and he is carried north with the tide. When the tide turns, and by dint of hard rowing, an unopposed landing is achieved (the British apparently daunted by the enormity of the incoming fleet) at “that part of the island where he had learned the previous summer that disembarkation was best” (5.8.3). The shore at this point is described as molle atque apertum (5.9.1).

The archaeological discovery at Ebbsfleet, posited as Caesar’s landing point in 54, was a large enclosure (encompassing more than 20 hectares), bounded by a defensive ditch. Aside from similarities to Roman camps found elsewhere, and conclusions drawn from a quite speculative reconstruction of Caesar’s indirect route to the British shore in 54, the key find was the tip of a Roman pilum located among pottery of a mid-first-century BC date. That, combined with Caesar’s account of the local topography, including his landing at a “sandy, open shore” (the shore at Deal and southwards is certainly not sandy), makes the case for a landing at Ebbsfleet, I think, but do please read the piece for yourselves.

We probably need a map, and here are two: one lifted from Tony Wilmott’s excellent English Heritage guide to Richborough and Reculver, and after that (since, as the first indicates, the landscape has altered dramatically since Roman times) a contemporary snippet from Google Earth for comparison.

On Tony Wilmott’s map, Ebbsfleet is the red dot furthest south on the Isle of Thanet (on the other map, it’s roughly where Cliffsend is); on the first map the east coast extends only as far south as Deal, whereas the second takes in Deal, Walmer, Kingsdown and the northern edge of the White Cliffs. In Caesar’s time modern Deal would mark the top of the long shingle coastline (though extended by spits to the north) that stretched down to Kingsdown and the White Cliffs (again, alone of my family, I walked the length of this ancient coastline a couple of days ago…).

My feeling is that the positive case for Ebbsfleet (always bearing in mind that it is only the 54 invasion at issue) is not especially strong, but I’ll concentrate on my negative thoughts. One is that a landing at Ebbsfleet would place the Roman troops on the Isle of Thanet when it was still an island. To access the interior (as he subsequently does), Caesar would have had to get his forces across a significant water barrier, the Wantsum Channel, but there is no reference to such a thing in the Commentaries, and it would be most unlike Caesar to fail to mention such a singular achievement. Another consideration is that Caesar’s account strongly implies that the two landings took place in essentially the same location, both explicitly (5.8.3) and by the almost identical language he uses to describe the nature of the shoreline in both instances. If they were at essentially the same spot, that rules out Ebbsfleet as the landing place in 54, since the location in 55, seven Roman miles or so from a point off the White Cliffs, places us somewhere between Deal and Kingsdown and nowhere near Ebbsfleet.

The third point concerns the translation of Caesar’s description of the shoreline. “Sandy, open shore” is the Loeb translation of litus molle atque apertum (5.9.1), with which we can combine the apertum et planum litus of 4.23.6. The Ebbsfleet theory sees this as a good description of Pegwell Bay, the little that remains of the Wantsum Channel. But the word mollis here is less likely to mean “sandy”, “soft underfoot”, than “easy”, “gentle” (i.e. “not steep”), “accessible”. The “traditional” location for the landings, somewhere on the long shingle beach that now extends from Kingsdown to beyond Sandwich (and in Caesar’s day from Kingsdown as far as Deal), is admirably “open” (apertum) but also molle in the sense of “easy of access” and planum in the sense of “level” (especially in comparison to the cliffs further along the coast). For me all of this makes it overwhelmingly likely that this stretch of coast is the real location of Caesar’s landing point.

Here are some images of that shingle coastline south of Deal, the shoreline running south as seen from Deal pier on the left, and the view from Kingsdown toward the White Cliffs on the right. In Caesar’s day the coastline would be further west, but essentially similar in character, we must assume:

An incidental consideration is that the stretch of water from Kingsdown to Deal, known as The Downs, has historically been a place for ships to shelter in the relative protection of the Goodwin Sands a few miles offshore. The unusually calm character of the sea along this coast is one of its most appealing features today, I can add, but it may also possibly be part of what Caesar was pointing to in molle. In any case, its general calmness does not preclude severe storms at times, and Caesar’s fleet was seriously damaged in both 55 (4.28-9) and 54 (5.10). The Goodwin Sands are more familiar as a menace to seafarers than a boon, of course.

All in all, then, I think Walmer is justified in having this memorial on its beach. The inscription is eroded, and a couple walking past when I was there were undecided whether it was Caesar or St. Augustine or “some other Roman”, but it reads, “THE FIRST ROMAN INVASION OF BRITAIN LED BY JULIUS CAESAR LANDED NEAR HERE LV BC.”

I think we can confidently extend that to LIV BC, too.

Dr. Stein

A fragment of very minor interest, barely worth blogging. But it is mid-summer.

I’m still writing a biographical sketch of Sir Harold Deane, first Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province of British India and formerly political officer in Dir and Swat, at which time he has a claim to have inaugurated the archaeological exploration of (the archaeologically remarkable) valley of Swat.

An optimistic sweep of JSTOR a few days ago introduced me to a fabulous resource, the correspondence of the Directors of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, more than 28,000 letters annotated, scanned and uploaded. Blessings on the anonymous heroes responsible.

Among them are seven short letters which give, as letters sometimes do, a vivid impression of a momentary human encounter. (They are discoverable in the Global Plants collection on JSTOR under the Identifier nos. KDCAS7981-KDCAS7987.) These letters carry dates between October 29 and November 22, 1910, and are all addressed to Sir David Prain, Director of the Gardens at Kew. The author of six of the seven is Lady Mary Gertrude Deane, known as Gertrude, widow of Harold Deane, who had died in 1908 at the age of 54.

The key detail of the exchange (of which we see Gertrude’s side almost exclusively) is her offer to Prain and Kew of the botanical specimens that had been collected by her late husband in NWFP over the course of the last few years of his life. As she explains, it is all still packed in a trunk in the flat she was occupying in Overstrand Mansions, overlooking Battersea Park in south-west London. She and her husband had left India abruptly when Harold was taken ill in 1908, and their possessions, including this trunk, evidently followed them before and after his death just two weeks after their arrival in Britain in July of the same year.

The first letter from Gertrude Deane, on October 29, 1910, contains her offer to donate the specimens to the collections at Kew. On November 1 Gertrude indicates that the offer has been accepted, expressing her pleasure at the news, and on the next day she writes to inform Prain that the trunk has been dispatched to Kew by goods train, enclosing the key that opens it. By November 9 Prain has acknowledged receipt, and on November 18 Gertrude suggests dates when she might visit Kew and see her husband’s collection in its new home. On November 22 final arrangements are being reached for tea at Prain’s house and a viewing, at some imminent but unspecified date, of a selection of her husband’s specimens, now incorporated into the collection at Kew. The seventh letter is an internal memo to the Director from Dr. Otto Stapf, Keeper of the Herbarium at Kew, proposing how the specimens might be presented to Lady Deane when she did visit.

What emerges clearly from this correspondence is Gertrude’s relief and delight that something can be done with her late husband’s collection. It’s easy enough to imagine what her flat felt like, filled with reminders of their life, abruptly curtailed, in Peshawar. For my purposes Harold Deane’s botanical interests illustrate nicely the intellectual dimension of a successful Imperial administrator’s engagement with the territory he managed, an intense concern for the botany of the NWFP parallel to his earlier interest in the archaeological remains of Malakand and Swat.

But the most interesting detail of the correspondence, for me at least, is only obliquely to do with Sir Harold Deane. This is where the thread of letters starts, the original source of Gertrude Deane’s idea to approach Kew, as it is indicated in the first letter to Prain on October 29. Gertrude describes discussing what to do with the material with “Dr. Stein”, who had come to visit her, and the implication is that it was Dr. Stein who had encouraged her to approach Kew.

In 1910 Aurel Stein was in the middle of a three year sabbatical in Europe, a significant chunk of it spent between London and Oxford, largely taken up with cataloguing within the British Museum, and also writing up, the incredibly rich discoveries he had made during his Second Central Asian Expedition, in particular the manuscripts and paintings that he had removed from the “Thousand Buddha Caves” at Dunhuang. Stein has suffered physically during this expedition, to the extent of losing the toes of his right foot to frostbite while crossing the mountains back into India. By late 1910, also, the dog that has accompanied him during the two-year expedition, across hot and cold deserts, Dash the Great, had been released from quarantine (we can all currently sympathise), but would thenceforth stay in Oxford, adopted by Stein’s closest friends, Helen and Percy Allen. Stein had exceptionally good connections within the intelligentsia of the Imperial capital, and Gertrude Deane was benefiting from it.

But what the glimpse of Aurel Stein in that opening letter also tells us is something about who he now was after the Second Expedition. Gertrude Deane begins her short letter of October 29, “When Dr. Stein came to see me the other day…”, and ends it “Dr. Stein served under my husband & is an old friend of our’s. We have known him many years.” She frames her letter with Aurel Stein because she knows perfectly well, I think, the power of the name she is dropping.

Here is Jeannette Mirsky in her biography Sir Aurel Stein, Archaeological Explorer (p. 322) on the transformation to Stein’s status and prospects that Dunhuang and the aftermath had wrought:

“Stein was suddenly seen as a hero. As the knight-errant who had freed documents languishing in a ‘black hole’, he was impressive; as the victor of an ambush set by a merciless cold, he was irresistible. This double victory assured that his requests were no longer ignored or postponed. Suddenly all doors were open to him; he had but to ask and that ‘great machine’, the bureaucracy, listened. If heretofore his work happened to coincide with the interests of the government, now the government bent to facilitate his work. The panorama gained by his new position extended to the furthest reach of his hopes.”

Aurel Stein could indeed be considered Deane’s protégé, as Gertrude suggests: her husband had been a critical source of support at an earlier stage of Stein’s career. But Stein recognised his debts and was scrupulous in repaying them, and in 1910, newly invested with honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and in June 1910 with the insignia of a Companion of the Indian Empire by the King, he and Gertrude knew that his name could open doors for others, too.

Iphis & Ianthe, full stop.

Youth with a scroll, from the Casa del Cenacolo, Pompeii, photo by Dr Sophie Hay

My Ovid: A Very Short Introduction is edging ever closer to publication, and I’ve been blogging snippets as I’ve gone along. Here’s a final thought on the subject of Iphis and Ianthe, the intensely satisfying story that concludes Metamorphoses IX. (It has been brilliantly retold, relocated to a mildly surreal but very contemporary Scotland, by Ali Smith in Girl Meets Boy.)

The story of Iphis and Ianthe, first of all. Iphis’ father had told his pregnant wife Telethusa that if her child proved to be a girl she must not be allowed to live. But the goddess Isis appeared to Telethusa in a dream and ordered her to disobey her husband and raise the child whatever the gender. Iphis is born a girl, but raised by Telethusa as a boy, and her husband never becomes aware of her deceit. Iphis is betrothed to a girl named Ianthe, and they are deeply in love. But Iphis (and Telethusa) live in dread of the marriage day, when their secret will be revealed, to Ianthe as well as to Iphis’ father. A desperate appeal by Telethusa to Isis follows, and when Iphis and her mother emerge from the goddess’ temple, a metamorphosis has occurred:

sequitur comes Iphis euntem
quam solita est maiore gradu nec candor in ore
permanet et uires augentur et acrior ipse est
uultus et incomptis brevior mensura capillis,
plusque uigoris adest habuit quam femina. nam quae
femina nuper eras, puer es!

“Iphis follows her mother closely as she goes/ with a stride larger than usual, and the whiteness is no longer/ on her face. Her strength increases, and her very features/ are sharper, and her hair shorter and untidy:/ she has more vigor than she had as a woman. For you who/ were just now a woman, are a boy!”

Iphis and Ianthe, now boy and girl, are married, and so the tale ends. Why do I call this narrative intensely satisfying? Well, partly because a love story that faces an insurmountable challenge but achieves unexpected resolution and eventuates in a happy marriage answers a few of the requirements of the archetypal narrative plot, and Ovid structures and paces his story to perfection (Ovid is aside from anything else a superb storyteller), while at the same time indulging his taste for the paradoxical. Latin also has the resources, in Ovid’s hands at least, to end the story with the two names “Iphis Ianthe” lying next to each other in the closing cadence of the very last line.

Partly that, then, but, at the risk of appearing hopelessly cold and donnish, what I like more than anything about this story is how it plays with poetic form. (This can perhaps be forgiven the author of a whole book on Roman metrical form, who has recently been deriving inordinate pleasure from learning to scan mutaqarib mahzuf, the metre of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.) Here in Met. IX the form in question is not metre, but book divisions. Metamorphoses has fifteen books in modern editions, which corresponds to an ancient text divided into fifteen separate uolumina or book rolls (the young man in the image at the top is holding a uolumen). A physical multi-book poem in antiquity would thus have been a great deal more cumbersome than a modern paperback, but so also would the reader’s experience of passing from book to book. The end of Book I and beginning of Book II of the Metamorphoses was not simply a matter of turning the page, but putting aside (and potentially also rewinding) one roll and then locating the next among fourteen others.

Ovid, a poet ever alert to the mechanics of composition, has a lot of fun with the ends and beginnings of his books, in particular avoiding Virgil’s practice in the Aeneid of tying up an episode tidily in one book. More typical of Ovid’s approach is the end of the previous book, Book VIII, where the horned river god Achelous points to a horn he is missing from his forehead, but we have to wait until Book IX to learn how he lost it in combat with Hercules and how it became the Cornucopia. (Horns proliferate at the end of Ovid’s books, and it’s something to do with the fact that the cornua, “horns”, were the ends of the stick around which books were rolled, and “rolled out right to its horns” was synonymous with “read right to the end”, see Martial 11.107.1.) The disorderliness this lack of respect for book divisions brings to Ovid’s narrative is one of many ways in which Ovid allows the principle of instability, intrinsic to a work about change, to seep into every aspect of the poem.

But if books have a habit of not ending the way they should, it can be a metamorphically disruptive move to do the opposite, too. The story of Iphis and Ianthe is the last story of Book IX, and with its conclusion the book also ends: “Iphis Ianthe” are the final words of the book. That conclusion, as I’ve suggested, is heavily underlined in other ways: a narrative neatly wrapped up, a wedding, the newly-weds tucked up in bed. But in formal terms, too, Book IX of the Metamorphoses ends in a very, very conventional way. In fact I’d say that there’s no other book in the Metamorphoses that concludes quite so tidily and conclusively, with the necessary exception of the very last, Book XV.

When I find Iphis and Ianthe such a thoroughly satisfying story, then, it’s partly because at this point everything about the narrative, even down to the relation of that narrative to its physical vehicle, the book roll, is just tickety-boo.

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?

حامانیم

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?

Euphronios_krater_side_A_MET_L.2006.10

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.