Archive by Author | Llewelyn Morgan

New old light on Charles Masson

Charles Masson’s huge importance as a pioneer of archaeological and pre-modern historical research in Afghanistan, as well as a witness of events leading to war in the 1830s, is increasingly recognised. His significance essentially rests on the six years he spent based in Kabul, 1832-38, and the work he undertook during that time to investigate Buddhist sites, especially stupas, around Kabul and Jelalabad; and also, by collecting coins and other artefacts from the plain of Begram, site of Alexandria ad Caucasum, later known as Kapisa, to trace the perhaps 1,500-year history of that city after Alexander’s foundation in 329 BC.

My own encounters with Masson have been while writing a book about Bamiyan (he visited the valley in the winter of 1832), co-writing another book about Harold Deane, a Political Officer on the N.-W. Frontier whose archaeological discoveries on at least one occasion followed in Masson’s tracks, and most recently reviewing this book on Masson. Entirely superficial, in other words.

Meanwhile the serious work on Charles Masson has been undertaken by the British Museum Masson Project led by Dr Liz Errington. A series of superb publications from that project, all open access, are available here, here, and (coming shortly) here. The first of those I’ll be referring to quite a lot in what follows, specifically Dr Errington’s biography of Masson at pp. 3-14.

But for such a key figure, there are parts of his life, his early years especially, that have remained surprisingly obscure. One major reason for this is that Masson spent a large part of his life pretending not to be himself. He was baptised James Lewis, in London on February 16, 1800, and in 1821 enlisted in the Bengal Artillery. But then in 1827 he deserted from his regiment and escaped British jurisdiction, concealing his identity under his assumed name Masson. Old habits die hard, though, and even in the three-volume memoir that he published in 1842, by which time everyone and their pet cat knew exactly who he was, he consistently shifts the dates of events one year back. “In the autumn of 1826…” begins his account of his travels after his desertion in 1827.

Copies of the three volumes of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Panjab (1842) plus his concluding volume, Narrative of a Journey to Kalat. Including an Account of the Insurrection at that Place in 1840, and a Memoir on Eastern Balochistan (1843), are pictured at the top.

But these, as we shall see, are no ordinary copies.

They were purchased by the American scholar Gregory Possehl, an expert on the Indus Valley Civilisation who had developed an interest in Masson and published on him. I’m not sure that this is where his interest originated, but he describes in his article how he failed in the 1970s to find a graffito by Masson discovered by French archaeologists in a cave at Bamiyan in the 1930s (“If any fool this high samootch explore,/ Know Charles Masson has been here before”: J. Hackin, Nouvelles recherches archéologiques à Bāmiyān III, 1933, p. 2; Masson was a committed mediocre poet), but then apparently found another one. (When Masson had visited Bamiyan, incidentally, he had found graffiti by Moorcroft, Trebeck and Guthrie, three unfortunate predecessors).

In any case, what Prof. Possehl found when he opened the first volume, pasted inside, was a short, handwritten account of Masson’s life, clearly derived from direct communication with Masson, written by William Joseph Eastwick.

Eastwick had been based in the independent state of Sind, Assistant to the Resident in Sind, Masson’s important ally Sir Henry Pottinger. When Pottinger took leave from February 1839, Eastwick became Acting Resident. Eastwick’s note mentions encounters with Masson “on the Indus” in 1839 and 1840, and Masson’s stay with him at Hyderabad. After leaving Kabul Masson spent over a year in Sind, apparently moving between Karachi, Tatta and Hyderabad, the capital of Sind, writing up his memoirs (Errington pp. 3, 7 and 13). Norris in The First Afghan War (1967), p. 252-3 cites the account of the war by Henry Marion Durand (the footnote) to illustrate that “Charles Masson was finding a receptive audience for his slanderous stories [about Alexander Burnes, so probably not so slanderous] among Tory officers on the banks of the Indus in January and February 1839.” And Errington on p. 7 cites another glimpse of Masson in Karachi, not a happy time for him, from Dalrymple, Return of a King (2013), p. 471.

When Pottinger left India entirely in early 1840, he took Masson’s writings with him to show to publishers, and in April 1840 Masson set off back toward Afghanistan to continue his research. Caught up in a rebellion in Qalat (the invasion of Afghanistan was a cause of widespread instability), Masson suffered imprisonment in Qalat and then by the British in Quetta, under suspicion of collaboration in Qalat, experiences to which Eastwick also alludes.

On the evidence of this document, Eastwick knows Masson well. By the time he writes it (between February 16 1842 and February 15 1843 assuming Masson’s age is given correctly at the start) Eastwick has retired from India and returned to Britain: he later became a Director of the East India Company. Masson, who returned to Britain in March 1842, was most probably in London, too, and Eastwick’s document looks like some kind of letter of support solicited by Masson.

The cramped writing after the bracket on the first page is particularly intriguing. Possibly Eastwick’s handwriting, but certainly not Masson’s, it nevertheless repeats a complaint that Masson makes in similar terms in an annotation to his copy of the work in question here, the Oxford Professor H.H. Wilson’s Ariana Antiqua, which had showcased many of Masson’s finds for the first time: the annotation can be read on p. 308 and fig. 137 of this, and there are many more expressing the same intense feelings of injustice on Masson’s part as we find recorded in Eastwick’s note.

[30.10.2021: Edmund Richardson points out to me that Eastwick’s account reflects the false chronology adopted by Masson in Narrative, placing Masson’s first, brief visit to Kabul in 1827 rather than 1828, when it had really occurred.]

Prof. Possehl never published Eastwick’s account, and on his death his library was put up for auction: you can read the catalogue here; he had a fine collection of books! The information that reached the Masson Project was that his library had been purchased by a university in China, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, but efforts by the Masson Project to make contact and confirm that Masson’s memoir (and the Eastwick note) were there proved unsuccessful.

This is where having a brilliant former student and enthusiastic historian based in China, James Norman, came in useful, especially when he was able to put me in contact with Dr Chen Li’er of the Central Academy, who in turn very kindly, along with colleagues in the library, located the Masson volumes, and photographed for me the Eastwick note. I am hugely grateful to both Dr Chen and James. A vague proposal mid-afternoon eventuated in a photograph sent to my inbox before I woke up the next morning.

We might choose to think of this as Eastwick’s biography of Masson simply mimicking what its subject had done, wandering quietly off radar for a spell, but in a safe and happy place.

* * *

What follows is Dr Chen’s photograph of the note and my transcription. Dr Chen’s photo is sharp and legible; I hope my transcription is legible too, but presenting a transcription on a blog at all satisfactorily seems beyond me, and if it defeats you too you can find a pdf here. All of it, anyway, is offered as my gift to Liz Errington for the help she has repeatedly given me in my amateurish noodlings around this period, and I add the observation that Liz has managed, without sight of Eastwick’s note before now, to glean from Prof Possehl’s accounts of it all the noteworthy biographical details that it contains: see her biography (at pp. 3-14 of this) for proof. Especially acute are Dr Errington’s thoughts on how the evidence of his schooling at Walthamstow might elucidate a later encounter, quite possibly with an old schoolmate, in Afghanistan; and how working for Durant & Co. could explain Masson’s fluency in French. Meanwhile the “misunderstanding with his Father” and how “irksome to his feelings” Masson found military service are details that throw a little light at least on two major crises in Masson’s life, his enlistment and his desertion.

What remains in Eastwick’s note is a vivid pen sketch of a fascinating personality–courageous, frank to a fault, eccentric, prickly and embittered by experience, but someone for whom Eastwick has evident respect.

E. Errington (ed.), Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites of Afghanistan: Explorations, Excavations, Collections 1832–1835 (2017);

The Charles Masson Archive: British Library, British Museum and Other Documents Relating to the 1832–1838 Masson Collection from Afghanistan (2017);

Charles Masson: Collections from Begram and Kabul Bazaar, Afghanistan 1833–1838 (2021);

W. Dalrymple, Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan (2013);

J.A. Norris, The First Afghan War, 1838-42 (1967);

B. Omrani, “Charles Masson of Afghanistan: Deserter, Scholar, Spy”, Asian Affairs 39 (2008), 199-21;

G. L. Possehl, “An Archaeological Adventurer in Afghanistan: Charles Masson”, South Asian Studies 6 (1990), 111-124;

E. Richardson, Alexandria: the Quest for the Lost City (2021);

G. Whitteridge, Charles Masson of Afghanistan (1986).

The Buddhist road

Writing a book about Afghanistan a decade ago, horribly flawed though that book was, has affected my life in various ways. It has drawn me into projects that I trust will be less flawed, like the current one I’m pursuing with Professor Luca Olivieri on the earliest archaeological study of Swat, and in recent weeks my affection for the country has been a cause of great sadness, as I hardly need say. It has also introduced me to some very good friends, among them Owen Humphrys, someone I first met a long time ago while promoting that book.

Back then our conversation was about some remarkable photograph albums of Afghanistan in the 1920s that had belonged to his grandfather. More recently, though, I was delighted to discover that the focus of the book that Prof Olivieri and I are writing, Harold Deane, was also Owen’s great-grandfather. Pure serendipity, and Owen was able to share with me some material related to Deane, including the item I’m going to talk about here.

The item in question is a seven-page handwritten document entitled “Alexander’s Campaign in Afghanistan”. In fact this involves a broad (though in the nineteenth century not unparalleled) definition of Afghanistan, as it relates the Greek and Roman accounts of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in 327 and 326 BC to the territory between the Hindu Kush and the river Indus, today shared between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The document is a letter to Harold Deane, clearly an answer to one that Deane had sent the author, though now lacking the personalised cover sheet it must originally have had, and it is signed “J.W. Mc.Crindle 9 Westhall Gardens Edinburgh.” The letter can be securely dated, on internal evidence, to 1896.

John Watson McCrindle was a former principal of Patna College who also authored a series of books that collected together his translations of all the Greco-Roman texts that described India: Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian (1877); The Commerce and navigation of the Erythraean Sea (1879); Ancient India as described by Ktesias the Knidian (1882); Ancient India as described by Ptolemy (1885); The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great (1893); and Ancient India as described in classical literature (1901). McCrindle’s book on Alexander, published in 1893, by which time he had retired to Edinburgh, had presented the narratives of the Greek and Roman sources separately, but what he offers Deane in this letter is a synthesis of all those sources, McCrindle’s considered view of Alexander’s probable itinerary.

What was also happening in 1896 was that Harold Deane was working on the seminal article on the antiquities of Swat that is the focus of my work with Prof Olivieri, “Note on Udyāna and Gandhāra”, published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for October 1896. It is clear enough that Deane had sought information from McCrindle as he was writing (or rewriting) this article, in the course of which he concerns himself with Alexander’s itinerary among a number of other things.

This makes McCrindle’s letter to Deane a very interesting piece of evidence for Deane’s thinking as he composed what was a pioneering contribution to the archaeology of Swat and its neighbourhood, and something entirely unanticipated–and for that I’m enormously grateful to Owen. We’ll be publishing the letter properly in the book we’re writing, but here I’m just going to pick out one detail with a view to illustrating “Deane’s thinking”.

Harold Deane was a keen amateur antiquarian and archaeologist, but we need to ask how he came by the knowledge that he imparted in this article for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Swat, after all, was until 1895 a territory entirely beyond British control. But Major Deane was a Political Officer, and in particular he had accompanied a British military force that in 1895 invaded and occupied the lower part of the Swat valley as part of a larger mission to relieve a siege of British nationals in the princely state of Chitral.

As the Chief Political Officer accompanying this force, Deane brought to bear the language skills and familiarity with local culture that he had honed over a decade in similar roles on the North-West Frontier of British India. His article shares observations from before his service with the Chitral Relief Force, but the heart of it relates to the archaeological remains visible in the territory crossed by that force in its march toward Chitral. The most interesting aspect of this work, for me, is the intersection of a paramilitary colonial administrator and a pioneer of archaeological investigation in Swat, both of which Deane could undoubtedly claim to be. These two sides of Harold Deane are ultimately inseparable, but for a fuller discussion of all this you’ll need to read the book when it comes out.

In the meantime, though, there’s one detail in McCrindle’s letter to Deane (as I say, itself a response to an enquiry, or set of enquiries, from Deane) that I find especially suggestive.

This takes the form of a postscript from McCrindle answering a specific enquiry from Deane about the Malakand Pass:

“P.S. With regard to the road by the Malakand Pass. The only passages I can find in Strabo which can refer to it are — Book XV.i.26 “He (Alexr.) turned towards India and towards its western boundaries and the rivers Kôphês & Choaspes. The latter river empties itself into the Kôphes near Plemyrion1 after passing by another city Gorys2 in its course through Bandobênê and Gandaritis.[“] 27. [“]After the river Kôphês follows the Indus. The country lying between these two rivers is occupied by Astakeni (Assakeni) Masiani, Nysaei and Hippasii (Aspasii). Next is the territory of Assakenus where is the city Masoga — the royal residence. Near the Indus is another city Peucolaitis. At this place a bridge which was constructed afforded a passage for the army.[“]

1 v.l. Plêgêrion. 2 v.l. Gôrydalê

These are the only passages in Strabo which can have reference to Alexr.’s route through that part of Afghanistan. In preparing a 6th volume on Ancient India I searched through all Strabo for references to India & Afghanistan. J.W.Mc.C.”

The details here don’t really concern us. But Deane’s interest in Malakand, and interest in finding Malakand in classical texts, is something I find very intriguing. By the time he was writing his article for the Asiatic Society Deane was based in a fort at Malakand, the entrance to Swat at the summit of the Malakand Pass. But Malakand had also been the site of the first major conflict of the campaign to relieve Chitral, when British-Indian forces stormed the difficult approaches to the pass against opposition from the people of Swat. Christian Tripodi in Edge of Empire (2011), p. 85, calls the siege of Chitral “one of those instances of high drama, much like the siege of Mafeking during the Second Anglo-Boer War, that attracted a huge amount of attention throughout the Empire and pandered to public notions of national honour and imperial destiny.” The initial success at Malakand shared much of this perception of its heroic character.

In accounts of the capture of the Malakand heights and its aftermath, a regular point of reference is an ancient road to the summit of the pass, consistently referred to as a (or the) “Buddhist road”. George Younghusband, in the account of The Relief of Chitral that he wrote with his more famous brother Francis, describes the 60th Rifles happily chancing upon this road as they approached the summit (p. 88), and then its renovation and use after the capture of the pass as a supply route (p. 93). Much later Francis Younghusband recalled the latter activity “on an ancient road made in Buddhist times” when commenting in The Times (May 27th 1926, p. 14c, cf. H. Wang, Aurel Stein in The Times [2002], 84) on Aurel Stein’s purported discovery of Aornos at Pir Sar.

One of the first things the British did when they had captured Malakand was to build the road pictured at the top of this post (by which I travelled to and from Swat a couple of summer ago), and when two years after the capture of Malakand a general uprising, beginning in Swat, spread right along the British Indian frontier, and the fort at Malakand was besieged, an ambitious young soldier/journalist named Winston Churchill regularly refers in The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1897) to a Buddhist road leading to Malakand that lies alongside the modern construction. Here it is on Churchill’s sketch map (top left), and here also, for no very good reason, is my photo from the modern road in 2018, looking in a roughly southerly direction toward Mardan.

It’s clear enough, then, that an ancient/Buddhist road, or one perceived as such, was a familiar feature of the approach to Malakand, and in addition that this old road was what Deane was concerned with when he asked McCrindle about Greek references to “the road by the Malakand pass”. In the event McCrindle is not able to offer him anything very useful, as neither of the texts of Strabo he cites can really refer to it. But why Deane wanted McCrindle’s opinion on the road is still an interesting question, and we Classicists are all-too prepared to speculate on the basis of limited evidence. I for one thought I understood exactly what Deane was wondering about this ancient road.

One difference between Ancient History and studying the late nineteenth century, though, is that the amount of evidence available restricts the need for such classical speculation. In this case another document provides the answer loud and clear, and it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

Surgeon-Major L. A. Waddell may be best known these days for his quest in search of the landmarks of the Buddha’s life and ministry in northern India and Nepal, undertaken whenever he could secure leave from his official position. His prickly character, not softened by the toxic competition that developed to locate Kapilavastu and Kushinagar, is well conveyed in Charles Allen, The Buddha and Dr Führer: an archaeological scandal (2008).

In 1895, however, just a few months after the storming of the Malakand, Waddell visited Lower Swat, the area occupied by the British, “for the archaeological exploration of this ancient Buddhist land, formally called Udyana, and to secure sculptures for Government.” (In fact he was revisiting Malakand and Swat, since he had himself served in the Chitral Relief Force.) His official report to the government survives, rediscovered by Luca Olivieri, in an archival collection at the fort at Malakand, but that copy lacks the first page. Luckily Waddell was alert to the need to publicise his archaeological discoveries, though, and he published his report independently in issue 1224 of The Academy (October 19th 1895), pp. 321-2.

With reference to the road up to Malakand, he writes:

“On the following day I ascended the Malakand Pass by the so called ‘Buddhist road,’ as it has been lately named. It is an excellent ancient road, comparing favourably with the best mountain roads of the present day. It rises by an easy gradient, and several of its sections are cut deeply through the hard rock. It is quite possible that this may have been on the line of march of Alexander the Great in his invasion of India, as Major Deane suggests. Be this as it may, it is very probable that Asoka, Kanishka, and the powerful kings who held this country, used this road and gave it its present shape.”

Waddell is referring to a conversation with Deane rather than anything Deane had at this stage written, but his recollection clarifies what Deane had in mind (and in the process confirms what I had had in mind): Deane’s hunch was that the ancient route that had facilitated the advance of the British force over Malakand was also the road taken, two millennia before them, by Alexander the Great.

It was no such thing, as McCrindle diplomatically communicated to Deane. But this still amounts to a quintessentially imperial moment. I have blogged before about the European compulsion to find traces of Alexander at and beyond the North-West Frontier: here, for instance; and here is a twist on essentially the same story. Given the education of the men that found themselves there, and the culture of the army officer corps and Political Service, it proved seemingly impossible for British administrators and soldiers to dissociate this space from Alexander’s campaigns.

(C.A. Hagerman’s article, “In the footsteps of the ‘Macedonian conqueror’: Alexander the Great and British India”, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 16 (2009), 344-92, and his book Britain’s Imperial Muse: the Classics, imperialism, and the Indian Empire, 1784-1914 (2013), are very interesting on all of this.)

A general perception of Alexander as a civilizing force, combined with the insecurity inherent in a colonial intervention–the need to convince oneself that alien territory is comprehensible, and that, as a European, one has a right to be there–made him a favoured “charter myth” for British imperial activity in this part of the world. Where Alexander had trodden was a legitimate place for other Europeans also to wander.

But in this instance I think there is another, not unrelated impulse in play, one given particular emphasis by Hagerman. The storming of the Malakand was an action that demanded superlatives: Younghusband & Younghusband’s account makes that abundantly clear. Not far from Malakand Alexander had allegedly stormed the stronghold of Aornos, Mt. Ilam, because Heracles, a Greek hero who had trodden this ground long before Alexander’s Greco-Macedonian invasion, had once tried it (Arrian, Anab. 4.28).

The psychology of the Greeks and the British in Swat has always seemed to me to have much in common. But Harold Deane shared a thought with L. A. Waddell, and perhaps at Waddell’s suggestion wrote to J. W. McCrindle in pursuit of it, and the essence of that thought was that the glorious British capture of Malakand in 1895 was an exploit comparable in some significant sense to the achievements of Alexander the Great himself.

Mira quaedam vis

I’ve been spending a lot of my summer, happily but quite unexpectedly, in the late Nineteenth Century. This is partly related to a book I’m co-writing on the origins of archaeology in Swat, modern Pakistan, but also to a week I spent translating an issue of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ Latin newsletter Alaudae (“Larks”).

My translation of issue 27 of Alaudae, from May 1893, is part of a project coordinated by Michael Lombardi-Nash to get all issues of Alaudae — there were 33 of them between 1889 and 1895, the year of Ulrichs’ death — translated into English in time for the bicentenary of Ulrichs’ birth in 2025. Ulrichs, a lawyer and journalist from Hanover, was a passionate promoter of the Latin language, but his greater significance lies elsewhere, as a fearless campaigner for the recognition and acceptance of same-sex attraction in writings and public statements that required, in nineteenth-century Germany, immense personal courage. This is a good account of Ulrich’s life and importance.

Toward the end of his life, disenchanted with his reception in Germany and with broader developments there, Ulrichs relocated to Italy, and settled in L’Aquila as the guest of Niccolò Persichetti, who shared his interest in Greco-Roman antiquity and was sympathetic to his campaigning in defence of homosexuality. It was from L’Aquila that Ulrichs published Alaudae, and in issue 27 at least this meant gathering together items in Latin that had been sent to him from all corners.

It makes for a wonderful mishmash of material. On a train into London I found myself translating the Latin oration for a graduation ceremony at Trinity College Dublin, where an honorary degree was being conferred on General Sir George Stuart White. An hour later I was looking at a statue of George Stuart White, a man I confess I’d never heard of before, as I hurried down Portland Place. Ulrichs is not very sympathetic to the military, it’s fair to say, having encountered too many militaristic Prussians back home, no doubt, and he spends more time humorously discussing the kilt worn by Major Napier of the 92nd (Gordon Highlanders), who was accompanying White to the ceremony. When I talk about vivid glimpses of the late Nineteenth Century, though, I don’t mean British generals so much as things like Ulrichs’ source for this chunk of Latin from Trinity Dublin. He was sent it by W. H. Brayden, the editor (who is later mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses) of the “constitutional nationalist” newspaper the Freeman’s Journal—you are reading Latin in Alaudae, in other words, then suddenly deep in the complicated politics of pre-Easter-Rising Ireland.

Most of the issue I was translating was taken up by a celebration of the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s arrival as a teacher at the University of Padua in 1592, to which Padua had invited, in Latin of course, representatives from universities across Europe and in the United States, and received Latin responses back from a number of them. Ulrichs reproduces a few, and we’ll return later to the Latin letter from the University of Kazan on the Volga,  an important centre for Classical studies, as my colleague Georgy Kantor has informed me. I’ll also come back later to a dance card sent to Ulrichs from a Society of Pharmacists in Brno, now the Czech Republic (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), written in Latin so as not to upset either Czech or German pharmacists in this bilingual city. It’s again odd to view this after an intervening century of Czech-German relations, though my immediate need was for someone to make sense of Latin terms for dances like Polonaisa, Polka Frankogallica and Saltatio germanica. My colleague Sophie Bocksberger, an expert on dance ancient and modern, stepped deftly into the breach. But for Ulrichs such an event embodied the motto that prefaces every issue of Alaudae, Latinae linguae mira quaedam vis inest ad jungendas nationes, “The Latin language has a remarkable power to bring nations together”—Latin, no one’s language and thus potentially everyone’s.

I volunteered for this project because Ulrichs deserves all the recognition he can get, and because Latin and late-nineteenth-century intellectual life are a couple of my favourite things. But I found here something far more varied and interesting than I anticipated, and closely engaged with a fascinating moment in European history. What holds it all together, though, are Ulrichs’ journalistic skills of editing and composition, and the light touch and humour with which he threads it all together. He skips out of Latin at the end of my issue to share a French joke that is of its time but still quite funny, explaining why the English use “Esq.” in addresses: we are rather chilly in manner, and it stands for Esquimau. It’s a great project that Michael is leading, in short, and it deserves success—deserves, dare I say it, a publisher who’ll put these remarkable documents from a formative time between hard covers. If anyone is interested, feel free to get in touch.

However, two tiny and trivial thoughts that occurred to me while translating, chosen because they brought me quite close to Ulrichs and to these other people speaking Latin to each other 130 years ago.

At the end of the elegant Latin letter from Kazan University to Padua, a copy of which Kazan had sent him, Ulrichs gives the names of the Rector of the University and the Secretary, K. Boporuuno and M. Solovieff. A conversation on Twitter ensued between myself and Georgy Kantor, who like me initially thought that Boporuuno must be a Finnish name, but then established that the Rector in 1893 was not K. Boporuuno but Konstantin Voroshilov. The explanation is clearly that Ulrichs read Voroshilov’s name in Cyrillic, Ворошилов, as if it was in Latin script. But it can’t be quite that simple because Ulrichs reads printed Cyrillic elsewhere in the document from Kazan (and elsewhere again in issue 27) quite happily, identifying Latin derivations in administrative Russian. What’s happened, then, I think, is that Ulrichs was presented with two signatures from Rector and Secretary. One of them, that of Secretary M. Solovieff, was in Latin characters, leading Ulrichs to assume that the Rector’s was too. I can easily imagine a handwritten К. Ворощилов being read as K. Boporuuno. As for Ulrichs, to err is human, and one can encounter the human in a silly mistake. Here I felt like I was looking over Ulrichs’ shoulder as he struggled to decipher someone’s handwriting, something I’ve done quite a bit of myself in the recent past.

I’m not at all sure about my second thought. But it takes us back to those pharmacists in Brno. I couldn’t initially make sense of an abbreviation that prefaces each half of the dance card, “Rp.”: Rp. Polonaisa. Saltat. german. Polka francogallica … Rp. Saltat. german. Polka mazur. IVta Quadrilla …, and I think Ulrichs was as foxed as I was. But then I had a thought. One piece of Latin that’s quite peculiar to pharmacists, or at least pharmacists in Central Europe, is “Rp./” short for “Recipe”, “Take…”, the instruction from the medical practitioner to the chemist/pharmacist as to what they should give the patient. (An English “recipe” was originally a medical prescription; and Rx or ℞ is the local equivalent of Rp./, I believe.) Here is a guide to writing medical prescriptions that I was delighted to find on the website of Masaryk University, Brno, with some important abbreviations on the first page, and a model prescription on p. 7. The invocatio, Rp., is what we’re concerned with:

“Take a Polonaise, Allemande, Polka Française…” instructs the pharmacists’ dance card. If I’m wrong about this, and it’s very likely, errare est humanum and I do it a lot. If I’m right, though, how absolutely lovely that is, pharmacists telling each other, whether they be Czech or German, that an evening of dancing together is just what the doctor ordered.

My thanks to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs for telling me about about this, and to Michael Lombardi-Nash for introducing me to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.

I’d like to report a murder

What follows is inspired by a question I was asked by my wonderfully talented friend N, but it illustrates a view of Ovid that I presented early in my very short book on the poet as his congenital inability to resist a good joke — a persistent feature of his poetry and arguably, ultimately, a blight on his life.

Ovid’s weakness for the flippant is something that sharply divides opinion about the poet among scholars today (many of my colleagues have absolutely no time for him), but it irritated ancient critics, too. Lasciuus quidem in herois quoque Ouidius et nimium amator ingenii sui, laudandus tamen in partibus, Quintilian asserted sniffily (10.1.89): “Ovid lacked seriousness even in epic and was too much a fan of his own talent, though praiseworthy in parts.” The epic that Quintilian is referring to is Ovid’s masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, and the verb lasciuire, with that same sense of being flippant and immature, is used by Seneca the Younger of Ovid’s flood narrative in the first book of the poem, a serious subject (in the philosopher’s view) ill served by Ovid’s playful treatment (Natural Questions 3.27.14). Epics (and such grand epic themes as global floods) should be deadly serious undertakings, needless to say.

Quintilian, Seneca and my colleagues raise an important point, the key element of it encapsulated by one colleague who put it to me “that if we take seriously the possibility that great poetry could improve us”, we must wonder also whether Ovid’s unremitting puckishness might not have the opposite effect. In Ovid’s case, and this is a sign of the paradoxical sophistication of his playfulness, the poetry is mischievous but also self-consciously celebrates its mischievousness: non ignorauit uitia sua sed amauit, as Seneca the Elder put it (Contr. 2.2.12), “he was not unaware of his faults, in fact he loved them.” On this question I found it useful reading up on the philosophy of humour at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, where John Morreall’s discussion certainly chimed with my own hunch that humour is an essential part of thriving as a human — and as such also, it seems to me, a valid, and edifying, characteristic of a literary composition.

Humour is a form of play, in Morreall’s account, and as beneficial as a necessary release from serious, pragmatic activity as playing squash or football. The difference is that humour is intellectual rather than physical play, but what both forms of play also have in common is the exercise they provide, under circumstances where no serious consequences will eventuate, in physical and intellectual resilience. “In the humorous frame of mind, we experience, think about, or even create something that violates our understanding of how things are supposed to be. But we suspend the personal, practical concerns that lead to negative emotions, and enjoy the oddness of what it occurring” (Morreall p. 35). Laughter, the characteristic accompaniment to the humorous, brings well-recognised physiological benefits, it is worth adding, and laughter also, as Morreall insists, enforces our sociability, the essence of our humanity, since we laugh much more often with others than alone. Humour enhances our thinking, therefore, and also our interaction with other people.

What N asked me about was a passage in Metamorphoses Book 2 which happens to be one of my favourites. This is despite the fact — OK, directly consequent upon the fact — that it represents a tremendously silly moment even by the standards of this poet and this poem. The passage is complex (more on this below), but features the Crow offering advice to the Raven based on her own past experience, and then explaining how she had been transformed by the goddess Minerva/Athena from human to crow. N’s question to me was, What was the name of that woman who had been turned by Minerva into the Crow, since Ovid never provides it?

My answer was that neither Ovid nor any other ancient author seems to give us a name for the pre-metamorphosis Crow, but that I believed that this silence provided Ovid with a golden opportunity to indulge that deplorable lack of seriousness Quintilian was talking about.

Let’s look at this passage a little more closely, because Ovid seems quite determined to make it as difficult as possible for his readers to follow. In particular, he introduces the autobiography of the Crow in the context of a really quite similar story about the Raven, and it’s a reasonable assumption that Romans found it as hard to distinguish these corvids as we typically do. As anticipated, furthermore, Ovid is far from clear and transparent about names.

Here is a summary (Met. 2.531-634):

The Raven is flying off to inform Apollo that the god’s lover Coronis, mother of Asclepius, is being unfaithful with a mortal man, but is waylaid en route by the Crow, who shares with the Raven her own backstory, specifically how, by telling tales in exactly the way the Raven is planning to do (in the Crow’s case by revealing that Cecrops’ daughters had seen the child Ericthonius in a chest that was not supposed to be opened), she found herself spurned by Minerva in favour of the owl; after that (for she is still talkative to a fault) the Crow describes how Minerva had transformed her from human to bird to protect her from an assault by Neptune/Poseidon. Subsequently the Raven does inform Apollo about Coronis’ infidelity, Apollo shoots his lover dead with an arrow, repents too late, and in anger at the tale-telling that provoked his own violence (Gods are rarely exemplary figures in the Metamorphoses) turns the previously white Raven jet-black.

This is already a pretty convoluted narrative, but the names take it to another level. The Raven (in Latin, coruus; in Greek, κόραξ/corax) is telling tales about Apollo’s lover Coronis, whose name suggests a crow (in Latin cornix; in Greek κορώνη/corone). But then, in the course of her story, the Crow (cornix, κορώνη/corone) drops in the name of her human father, Coroneus (569). This detail seems to be a pure invention on Ovid’s part, but given that “Coroneus” also suggests the Greek word for “crow”, κορώνη/corone, it is appropriate for the Crow’s father, and if we are, like N, wondering what this woman was called, Corone or Coronis are strongly implied both by her father’s name and the fact that she becomes a crow, corone. So Ovid presents us with two parallel stories associated with similar-looking birds who both talk too much, but we also have one heroine called Coronis and another apparently called Corone/Coronis.

Confused? So you should be. And a reminder that a lot of the confusion is deliberately sown by means of that invented name Coroneus — deliberately sown by the poet.

Now it should be said that we’d get even more out of this passage if we had the mini-epic Hecale of Ovid’s great Greek model Callimachus. One reason we don’t have it, as Adrian Hollis explains in his edition of the poem’s surviving fragments* (p. 40), is a bunch of marauding Frankish crusaders who sacked Athens in 1205 and as they did so quite possibly destroyed the last surviving complete copy of the work. One had apparently existed in the library, likely on the Acropolis itself, of Michael Choniates, Archbishop of Athens. In the course of Callimachus’ poem, in any case (the evidence now mainly coming in papyri from Egypt), there was a scene, possibly immediately after the death of the title character Hecale, that involved a crow (κορώνη/corone) telling another bird about Ericthonius, possibly again with a view to dissuading the other bird from sharing the unwelcome news of Hecale’s death. Callimachus’ crow then went on to prophesy (crows being considered both very old and prophetic creatures) that the raven (κόραξ/corax) would one day be turned from white to black for telling Apollo about Coronis’ infidelity (fragments 70-74 Hollis, although frs. 75-7 may also be spoken by the crow). Clearly Ovid owes a lot to Callimachus, then, and while piecing together fragmentary texts is a confusing exercise at the best of times, I suspect that Callimachus was already in the game of writing a narrative involving the punishment of too many corvids, and deliberately making it tricky for his readers to disentangle.

(Incidentally, this is all, as Hollis remarks, deeply poignant, as the myth of the crow’s rejection was supposed to explain why crows avoided the Athenian Acropolis, where it is possible that the very last complete copy of Hecale had ended its existence.)

But it’s Ovid and his irrepressible sense of humour we are concerned with, and here he does a recognisably comic and silly thing, constructing a confusing narrative, somewhat indebted to Callimachus and built on an existing human confusion between indistinguishable birds, and purposefully exacerbated through a play with names. In particular he strongly encourages his readers to supply a name for one heroine, by naming her father Coroneus, which will be indistinguishable from that of another very famous heroine (for Coronis the mother of Asclepius cf. Pindar, Pyth. 3.5-46 as well as Callimachus and Ovid). I’ll come back to this latter idea, but some further evidence first that I’m not alone in being confused by Ovid’s corvid narrative. When Chaucer in The Manciple’s Tale retells the story of Apollo and Coronis, it is a “crowe”, not a raven, that tells the tale and suffers a change in plumage. Edgar Allan Poe, meanwhile, in a reasonably famous poem associates a raven bringing news of some mysterious kind with a bust of Pallas Athena, not Apollo. Sir James Frazer struggles with what is a very complex web of stories even before Ovid gets hold of them, and suggests a deeper mythical kinship between Athena/crow and Apollo/raven.

Donald Hill’s commentary* on this passage gets what I think is going on by not getting it, I would respectfully suggest. He comments on 569:

Coroneus: not otherwise known, but the name was presumably chosen to encourage the reader to supply for the name of the crow herself the Greek word for that bird, ‘Corone’. Her name is certainly not ‘Coronis’, as in the plot summaries of some medieval manuscripts and renaissance editions, for that would produce intolerable confusion.

Those are my italics. But to put Hill’s argument another way, Ovid has successfully provoked lots of medieval and Renaissance (and no doubt ancient) readers to supply the name “Coronis” for the Crow as well as Apollo’s doomed lover, but that can’t be right as it would be far too confusing. Alison Keith*, in a clever and detailed treatment of the passage in the context of the whole book, reads the overlapping parallels between Ovid’s crow and raven narratives as supporting in various ways a characterisation of their encounter — not as intolerably confusing, then, but as complexity with a coherent narrative purpose. There’s every chance she’s right, but I find myself closer to Alessandro Barchiesi*, who’s more inclined to see the complexity, our feeling as readers of the Metamorphoses that we have lost our way, as an end in itself for Ovid. The watchword with Ovid’s poem, I’ve suggested, is its lasciuia, frivolousness, mischief, indiscipline. Here, Ovid mischievously brings into collision readily confused birds, and myths (it is typical of Ovid that the joke depends on something as universal as confusion about corvids, and something so sophisticated as a deep knowledge of myth), and caps that confusion by drawing us to conclude that both myths centre round women who share the very same name. Far from “intolerable confusion” being a reason to resist a particular interpretation of the Metamorphoses, such confusion is exactly what this poet is regularly aiming to inflict on readers of his poem.

Now, the matter of humour has dropped out of sight somewhat, but it can be amusing to read an increasingly convoluted story, and Ovid’s casual inclusion of the name of the Crow’s father, Coroneus, leaving us to draw the implication about her name, is brilliantly witty. If we do lose our bearings in this story (and laugh as we do so), in any case, I’m confident that we’re doing what Ovid wanted us to do. It’s hyper-sophisticated, it’s thoroughly daft (lasciuus), and (for good or ill) it’s Ovid through-and-through.

But am I wrong to be quite convinced that my life is enriched — that I am improved — by spending time with this brilliant silliness?

A. Barchiesi, Ovidio, Metamorfosi, Vol. 1: Libri I-II (Milan, 2005);

A. M. Keith, The Play of Fictions: Studies in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 2 (Ann Arbor, 1992);

D. E. Hill, Ovid, Metamorphoses I-IV (Warminster, 1985);

A. S. Hollis, Callimachus, Hecale (Oxford, 1990);

The source of the illustration at the top is here.

A city with no name?

This is my second blog on the “prehistory” of the Aeneid in quick succession, but this one is directly inspired by Shadi Bartsch’s wonderful new translation of Virgil’s poem. Everyone should get a copy; it’s by far the best English version available, in my humble opinion. In this blog I’ll actually be questioning Prof. Bartsch’s translation of a line, but my ultimate point will be that her rendering of that line is as right as it’s wrong, and more importantly that it exemplifies the engagement with the spirit of an original text that a truly great translation can achieve.

The line in question is a momentous one, the very opening line of Aeneid VIII, an important book of Augustan foundations, which also marks the formal outbreak of war between the Latin and Trojan forces. Here are lines 1-6, followed by Prof. Bartsch’s translation:

Ut belli signum Laurenti Turnus ab arce
extulit et rauco strepuerunt cornua cantu,
utque acris concussit equos utque impulit arma,
extemplo turbati animi, simul omne tumultu
coniurat trepido Latium saeuitque iuuentus               

“As bugles blared their strident notes, Turnus waved/ the standard on Laurentum’s citadel, spurred/ his eager horse and clanged his sword and shield./ At one, all hearts were thrown in turmoil. In the anxious/ tumult, Latium swore loyalty; the young men/ raged for war.”

It’s a terrific opening, building momentum for the conflict to come. The previous book had ended with a catalogue of all the Italian forces gathering to oppose Aeneas. Here at the start of Book VIII the resistance to the Trojan arrivals is encapsulated in Turnus’ action in 1-2 of raising the “signal of war” (signum is a notoriously vague word, but some kind of standard or flag is perhaps implied) from the citadel of the city ruled by king Latinus.

I’m being careful about how I refer to that city of Latinus because this is the nub of the issue. The expression Laurenti… ab arce is translated by Prof. Bartsch as “on/from Laurentum’s citadel”, reading Laurenti as the genitive form of a proper name Laurentum, the name of the city. But Laurenti can also be the ablative form of the adjective Laurens, agreeing with arce, in which case Laurenti… ab arce would mean “from the Laurentine citadel” and the city would not in fact have been named. It’s fair to say that most translators and commentaries understand the construction in the latter way — fundamentally, it’s truer to Virgil’s practice elsewhere of identifying the people of this city as Laurentes, and things they possess as “Laurentine”. Aside from 8.1 he uses Laurens as an adjective (at a rough count) twenty-one times (plus the related Laurentius once at 10.709), and as a substantive in the plural, Laurentes, seven times.

On two further occasions beyond 8.1 we find the form Laurenti, 8.38 and 12.769, again generally read as dative/ablative of the adjective Laurens, and less prone to be read as the genitive of Laurentum (Prof. Bartsch goes with “Laurentian” is both instances), perhaps because arx, “citadel”, evokes a physical city more strongly than solum, “soil”, “earth”, at 8.38 or diuus, “god”, at 12.769. It’s also worth mentioning that “as an -nt- stem, Laurens shows both i-stem and consonant stem inflections in abl. sg. and gen. pl.” (A.J. Nussbaum, ‘Ennian Laurentis terra’, HSCPh 77 [1973], 207-15, at 209), that is with either -i and -e in the ablative singular and -ium and -um in the genitive plural (though always -um in Virgil): we find the ablative form Laurente at Aen. 7.47 and 12.547. “The i-declension was confused even to the Romans themselves”, in the immortal words of Allen and Greenough.

(Woodcut illustration from the “Strasbourg Vergil”, source and explanation:

My view — the mainstream view, I think I can claim — is that the natural reading of Laurenti at 8.1 is as an adjective, “Laurentine/Laurentian”. But I also think that Virgil was perfectly alive to this ambiguity, and that makes it all more interesting. With luck, at any rate, I can convince my reader that a matter of grammatical detail can have some quite momentous implications.

There’s a parallel argument to be made, ultimately no more conclusive than this stylistic hunch, but of an interestingly diverse kind. This is that, while other localities in Latium mentioned by Virgil, Ardea and Lavinium, were undoubtedly features of Augustan-era Latium and are identifiable in the modern landscape, the same is not so of any town called Laurentum.

A hundred years ago Jérome Carcopino in Virgile et les origines d’Ostie (Paris, 1919) argued very persuasively and at considerable length (pp.171-387; pp. 151-340 in the second edition (1968), which I’ll be citing), that Laurentum was never a place, and any ancient claims that it was were based on a misconception. Carcopino was writing against the backdrop of strenuous efforts to locate Laurentum in the coastal strip south of Rome, activity grounded in a general assumption that the remains of a real town bearing that name were indeed there to be discovered. See, by way of illustration, the detailed note on Laurentum in William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman geography (London, 1854).

What Carcopino establishes very comprehensively, however, is that whenever one tries to locate Laurentum, it always turns out to be the same as Lavinium. The truth is that the people known as the Laurentes, occupying an extent of territory known as the ager Laurens, had an urban centre called Lavinium: as Carcopino puts it, “there was never any town of Laurentum, because Lavinium was always THE town of the Laurentes” (173). Thus at the site of Lavinium, Pratica di Mare, almost all the inscriptions feature the Laurentes, which would be peculiar if they occupied a different town; the Via Laurentina led from Rome to Lavinium; and the cults of the Laurentes were performed at Lavinium. “Laurentum is the civitas, and Lavinium is the urbs; Laurentum is the living city, and comprises the territory, gods and men of which Lavinium is the bricks-and-mortar town” (173). Laurentum as such, then, as opposed to the Laurentes, the ager Laurens, and the religious traditions of the Laurentes, the latter of particular significance to Rome, never actually existed. (On the observation by the Roman state of key foundational cults, of Aeneas and the Penates, at Lavinium, see A. Alföldi, Early Rome and the Latins [1963], esp. 256-62.)

Thus far Carcopino’s argument is utterly convincing, indeed unanswerable. But he comes a bit unstuck when he tries to impose his understanding of the relationship between the Laurentes and Lavinium on Virgil’s account of things in the Aeneid. What he proposes is that the city of Latinus, with its “Laurentine citadel”, is Lavinium, but in order to maintain this claim he has to discount Aen. 1.258-60 and 12.193-4, where first Jupiter and then Aeneas anticipate the future foundation of Lavinium (1.258), a city to which “Lavinia will give her name” (12.194). Lavinium will be established by Aeneas and named after the bride he will marry after his killing of Turnus at the conclusion of the poem. But if the city of Latinus, the city from the citadel of which Turnus unfurls the standard of resistance, is not Lavinium, what is it? The striking truth is that Latinus’ city, a place of enormous significance in the plot of Aeneid 7-12, ultimately Virgil’s equivalent of the city of Troy, is never in the course of the poem actually named. Or perhaps I should say, never named unequivocally.

Nicholas Horsfall has a detailed discussion of the Laurentes and the anonymity of their city in the Enciclopedia Virgiliana (Vol. 3.141-4), which among other things fills out the bibliography since Carcopino. Nicholas Purcell also has an extremely interesting article forthcoming, which he was kind enough to show me, that relates Augustus’ country estate in the ager Laurens, which encompassed Lavinium, to Virgil’s presentation of the Laurentines and their capital, suggesting also that this issue was already to people of the Augustan period something of distant antiquity and myth — just the kind of thing Augustus might be keen to reinvent. My own theory, for what it’s worth, is limited to the Aeneid, and really to that first line of Book VIII and the expression Laurenti… ab arce.

The enemy city is nameless, and that is a subtle but effective way of denying it the right to exist in the mind of the reader. This city is the alternative to Aeneas’ foundation Lavinium, which is bound up in various ways by Virgil with the ultimate foundation, Rome itself — the fundamental goal of Aeneas’ heroic exploits. Virgil thereby deprives it of the reality, the presence, that a name would bestow, and unnamed, its eclipse by Lavinium/Rome seems pre-ordained.

But I think 8.1, Laurenti… ab arce, complicates that picture just a touch. A point that Carcopino makes more than once is how unusual the situation with Lavinium and the Laurentes was even for the ancients, “a duality that … had become extremely rare” in Virgil’s time and later (198). Among ancient writers there is certainly some evidence of confusion, for Greek authors especially: Strabo mentions a town named Λαυρεντόν (5.3.5), similarly Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Rom. Ant. 5.54.1) and Plutarch (Romulus 23.1); more surprisingly Pliny the Elder talks of an oppidum Laurentum (HN 3.56), and is followed by Pomponius Mela (2.64); and it features in the Itineraries and on the Tabula Peutingeriana (Carcopino 217-8). In the latter cases the imperial foundation in the area for personnel of the imperial estate, the Vicus Laurentium, may be exerting some influence.

(From a facsimile of the Peutinger Table, source “Laurento” is on the coast to the right of Ostia.)

These hints that the ancients were already a bit nonplussed by the Laurentes and their relationship to Lavinium are what make me refine my view of Aeneid 8.1 somewhat. The point, I suspect, is not so much that Virgil’s Roman readers knew that Laurentum was a fiction, but that the status of the Laurentes was mysterious, and the question of their city, and its relationship to Lavinium, perplexing. This is what Aen. 8.1 is playing on, I think, and why its ambiguity is important.

At Aeneid 8.1, the moment of greatest threat to Aeneas’ mission, when we have been introduced to the forces massing under Turnus’ leadership and war is declared from the citadel, Laurentum is all but named. Even Carcopino allows that for an instant here there is “the illusion of the presence of Laurentum” (244). It is that exquisite hint of threat, the contours of the rival city to Rome gaining momentary definition at this most critical juncture, it seems to me, that Prof. Bartsch captures perfectly by doing what Virgil never quite (unequivocally) does — giving the city of “Laurentum” its name.

Buy me!

The Antoneid

So here is a fragment of Polybius, really a chunk of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Rom. Ant. 1.32.1=Polybius 6.11.1), which quietly blew my mind the other day:

“But as some writers record, among them Polybius of Megalopolis, [the town Pallantium, the mythic ancient city on the Palatine Hill in Rome, was named] after Pallas, a boy who died there; he was the son of Heracles and Lavinia, the daughter of Evander, and his maternal grandfather [i.e. Evander] raised a tomb to him on the hill and named the place Pallantium after the boy.”

(ὡς δέ τινες ἱστοροῦσιν, ὧν ἐστι καὶ Πολύβιος ὁ Μεγαλοπολίτης, ἐπί τινος μειρακίου Πάλλαντος αὐτόθι τελευτήσαντος· τοῦτον δὲ Ἡρακλέους εἶναι παῖδα καὶ Λαουϊνίας τῆς Εὐάνδρου θυγατρός· χώσαντα δ᾿ αὐτῷ τὸν μητροπάτορα τάφον ἐπὶ τῷ λόφῳ Παλλάντιον ἐπὶ τοῦ μειρακίου τὸν τόπον ὀνομάσαι.)

All of these names (Pallas, Heracles/Hercules, Lavinia, Evander, and even the toponym Pallanteum/ium) are familiar from the second half of the Aeneid, but it is as if Virgil’s poem were a pack of cards and Polybius has given it a good shuffle. Strictly, though, since Polybius predates Virgil by a century or more, it is Virgil doing the shuffling. Lavinia, the daughter of king Latinus, for whose hand Aeneas vies with Turnus, is in Polybius’ version the daughter of Evander, Aeneas’ ally against the Latins in the Aeneid. Meanwhile Pallas, in Virgil’s version the son of Evander whose slaying by Turnus motivates the brutal denouement of the poem, is the grandson of Evander and the child of Heracles by Lavinia. Of Aeneas in this account of things there is not a trace.

Lavinia’s name here, Λαουϊνία (the text is the Loeb of Cary, cf. I.xliv-xlv), is a conjectural emendation of the meaningless δύνας preserved in all the manuscripts, albeit a persuasive one. But I shan’t be making too much of Lavinia per se in what follows. What I will offer is the suggestion that Virgil and his Roman readers were not unfamiliar with alternative accounts of Roman mythic history like Polybius’s, and that Virgil positively exploits that familiarity even as he presents his own version. That what Polybius recorded could claim some authority is a reasonable assumption since the Greek historian rubbed shoulders with some of the leading Romans of his day, and would have had access to some high-status Roman folklore. Virgil and his readers may also have known Polybius’ text directly, of course.

The first thing that strikes me, though, is something that’s been staring me in the face. I’m very interested in Hercules, and that includes what I see as his critical symbolic role within the Aeneid. Hercules/Heracles is a figure to whom Aeneas is regularly, though subtly, assimilated. For example, when Aeneas lifts things onto his shoulders, the great shield forged by Vulcan in Aeneid 8 or his own father in Aeneid 2, a parallel is activated with Hercules bearing the burden of the sky (or the universe), which he does while Atlas fetches for him the golden apples of the Hesperides (but which had become, along with Atlas’ own role as sky-bearer, an image of heroic endurance).

Metope from the temple of Zeus, Olympia, depicting Heracles bearing the heavens, with a little help from Athena, while Atlas proffers the apples of the Hesperides.

In Book 8 Aeneas visits the future site of Rome and is told by Evander of Hercules’ visit to the place, when he rid it of the monstrous bandit Cacus. Aeneas’ arrival is deliberately aligned with Hercules’s, since the Trojan hero arrives on the day that commemorates Hercules’ visit. In fact August 12th, the date of the festival of Hercules at the Ara Maxima, the day when Aeneas came, also corresponds to Augustus’ “arrival” outside Rome before his Triple Triumph on August 13th, 14th and 15th in 29 BC, the conclusion of the Civil Wars, another event that Virgil depicts, on the shield which Aeneas hoists onto his shoulders in Herculean fashion at the very end of Aeneid 8. So Hercules, Aeneas and Augustus are layered one on top of another in an intriguing fashion as benefactors of Rome.

There’s lots more to say about Aeneas and Hercules, particularly when it comes to understanding the violence between future Romans that fills Books VII to XII. But what this fragment of Polybius alerts me to is a clear Herculean model for Aeneas’ role as ancestor of the Romans. The Trojan hero will marry the daughter of the local king, Lavinia, and the result will be a brand new people, the Romans. This is classic Herculean lore, and in Polybius we find Hercules in Aeneas’ role. To illustrate, here’s an account of Hercules’ stay in southern France (presumably), on the same journey from Spain to Greece that brought him to Rome, driving Geryon’s cattle before him (Parthenius, Sufferings in Love 30; translation J. Lightfoot):

“It is also said of Heracles that when he was bringing the cattle of Geryon from Erythea, his wanderings through the land of the Celts brought him to the court of Bretannus. This king had a daughter called Celtine. She fell in love with Heracles and hid his cattle, refusing to surrender them unless he first had intercourse with her. Heracles was in a hurry to get his cattle back, but he was even more struck by the girl’s beauty, and so he did have intercourse with her. When the time came round, a child was born to them, Celtus, from whom the Celts take their name.”

Hercules/Heracles makes a habit of begetting new peoples around the Mediterranean, and it seems to me that Aeneas’ role as the progenitor of the new race in Italy, a blend of the native and the foreign, and as partner of the king’s daughter, is another respect in which Virgil’s hero is patterned upon Hercules.

But I was going to suggest ways in which Virgil’s version of the story exploited Polybius’s very different account, or something like it, and I’d offer two illustrations of that thought, neither of them enough to protect me from the suspicion that I’m just mentally exhausted from exam marking. The first is the passage in Aeneid 10 where Pallas, son of Evander, prays to Hercules, now a god, for help in his imminent duel with Turnus. Pallas is outmatched and doomed, and Hercules in heaven can do nothing but weep, and I explained the significance of Hercules’ all-too-human tears here. But the model for Hercules’ fruitless concern for a doomed mortal is Zeus in Iliad 16 witnessing the death of his son Sarpedon–a scene that Virgil is careful to remind us of. In the Aeneid Hercules’ concern for Pallas seems, by comparison with Zeus, perhaps a little undermotivated. Sure, Hercules had visited Pallanteum and rid it of the monstrous bandit Cacus, but no particularly close connection between the hero and Pallas has been indicated before. My thought about Polybius’ version of the story, though, is that if readers are carrying with them a vague idea that Pallas is as close to Hercules as a son to his father, the relationship that Sarpedon bears to Zeus and Pallas to Heracles in Polybius, it lends this scene, currently (I’ll confess) my very favourite moment in the Aeneid, an exquisite extra force.

I’d regard the funeral of Pallas in Aeneid 11 as a similar nudge in the direction of an alternative detail. The young warrior dies in battle against Turnus, but his body is sent back to Pallanteum, the city of Evander, and that is where he is interred. Now Virgil, through the words of the river Tiber (Aen. 8.51-4), has explicitly derived the name of Pallanteum from another man named Pallas, Evander’s ancestor, but when Pallas is buried on the Palatine in Aeneid 11, his youth as in Polybius heavily emphasised, I wonder if Roman readers could exclude from their minds the possibility that this Pallas, the boy who died, is the origin of the name of the Palatine Hill. (We have already met at 7. 655-69, for what it’s worth, another son of Hercules who appears to be the eponym of a Roman hill, Auentinus, and the reader is by now well used to locations, Palinurus, Misenum, Caieta, named after burials.) If that thought was at all likely to occur to them, all I’d add is that the hint of an act of foundation is associated here, as elsewhere in the Aeneid, with sacrificial slaughter: it is on the Palatine, the very site of Rome, that the eight sons of Sulmo and Ufens, taken captive by Aeneas, are sacrificed at Pallas’ last rites. I discuss that deeply shocking turn of events, and its connections to the closing scene of the poem, in the latest Proceedings of the Virgil Society, if it’s of any interest.

Well, the notion that Virgil is contending with, or exploiting, alternative versions of the various stories that he tells in the Aeneid is a well-established one, particularly perhaps in relation to his departure from Troy. The introduction to Shadi Bartsch’s brilliant new translation of the Aeneid chases some of those ideas around. The presence of “Polybian” hints in the Aeneid, always assuming I’m right, may be further evidence, hardly needed, for Virgil’s subtlety, but what it also reminds us of is the astonishing power of the story that Virgil narrated, a wildly tendentious take on Roman mythic history that was so compellingly told that it eclipsed what must have been a jungle of alternatives. I wonder here also about Virgil’s simple talent for persuasive invention, for making his version the definitive version. Obviously to persuade the reader of one’s own story while at the same time exploiting their awareness of others requires particular virtuosity.

At the end of a string of speculations, some appropriately wild counterfactuals to round things off. I have a personal conviction that, had the Civil Wars which brought Augustus to power turned out differently, and Mark Antony rather than Augustus had won, the world might yet possess a Latin epic not hugely different from the Aeneid. It would feature at least as much Hercules, at any rate, because Antony claimed descent from him. Here is Plutarch, Life of Antony 4.1-2 (translation, B. Perrin):

“He had also a noble dignity of form; and a shapely beard, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose were thought to show the virile qualities peculiar to the portraits and statues of Heracles. Moreover, there was an ancient tradition that the Antonii were Heracleidae, being descendants of Anton, a son of Heracles. And this tradition Antony thought that he confirmed, both by the shape of his body, as has been said, and by his attire. For whenever he was going to be seen by many people, he always wore his tunic girt up to his thigh, a large sword hung at his side, and a heavy cloak enveloped him.”

This gives us precious little information about the details of Antony’s claimed genealogy, but if Anton, ancestor of the Antonii, was also fathered during Hercules’ cattle herding along the Italian coast, then some permutation of the kind of story told by Polybius might have formed the core of an epic narrative written by a poet with the requisite talent, maybe Virgil himself. The essential scenario of such an Antoneid may seem daft, but that’s only because Virgil has managed the remarkable achievement of convincing us that Augustus’ claim of descent from Aeneas isn’t.

Oxford, a satire

I’ve been teaching Juvenal’s satires for the first time in a while this term, and it reminded me of something.

Oxford, a satire is a version of what is probably Juvenal’s most celebrated satire, No. 3 on the city of Rome (it’s between this one and 10, on the vanity of human aspirations, at any rate). Oxford was first published, privately and anonymously, in 1910 and republished in 1922, and in it Rome is replaced as the target of criticism with “Oxford, whose fogs and enervating air/ The brain befuddle and the health impair” — the University specifically. It is an extremely accomplished piece of work, a successful reinvention of Juvenal, and that entails being just as mordantly disagreeable as the Roman satirist.

Satire is a troubling and controversial form, one that sets out to cause offence and yet was also considered by the Romans an expression of their most cherished civic virtues. The satirist is well characterised by Alvin Kernan as a figure who “believes that the case of man and society is desperate, and he applies appropriate therapeutic treatments: the whip, the scalpel, the strappado, the emetic, the burning acid. But each of these cruel methods of treatment suggests that the man who uses them exclusively enjoys his work. The more powerfully the satirist swings his scourge — and he usually does so with considerable gusto — the more he will appear to have a marked sadistic tendency” (The Cankered Muse: Satire of the English Renaissance [1976], 26). Juvenal, as Kernan makes clear, is the archetype of this savage satirist.

In this version of Juvenal from 1910, too, no feelings are spared. Here, for instance, the target is an academic like me (though students cop it too):

Vile is the tradesman that our purse has stole,
But viler still the Don that steals the soul.
The young enthusiast comes with heart aflame
For wisdom, learning, poetry, and fame;
He sees the hills of Rome in every dream,
And peoples with Greek nymphs each English stream.
'Let me drink deep,' he cries, 'of ancient lore,
And make my soul what Shelley's was before!
All joys I'll barter such a prize to gain!'
Poor youth, thy prayer how noble! yet how vain!
Can pigs grow wings and fly, unwonted birds?
Can the salt sea grow black with grazing herds?
Can the lean thistle blossom into figs?
Or Oxford aught produce save fools and prigs?
Doomed now, deposing reason from its throne,
To spend whole days with boredom and with Bohn,
To read each commentator's endless reams,
And learn for one Greek word two German names,
To hear some greybeard, chattering and perplexed,
Destroy all meaning and corrupt the text,
Or, reading out whole volumes on one word,
Hold 'nunc' in scorn, and show why 'tunc's' preferred;
Compelled in sterile toil whole months to waste,
Nor e'er to use his judgement, wit, or taste,
[He hears the Don primaeval views impart,
Scribbles them down, and learns them off by heart.
He goes to lectures; only hears a part;
Miswrites half that; and learns his note by heart.

This has Juvenal’s aggression and rhetorical point, his mock-elevated style, and his ability also to make us laugh at things we know we shouldn’t laugh at, the latter perhaps the very essence of satire.

Well, what I’m going to do here is fill in some hitherto missing details about the author of this work, anonymous at its publication, and study some of the nastiest material in a bit more detail, identifying ways in which they both tie Oxford to 1910 or 1922 and illustrate the precision of its reworking of Juvenal.

Juvenal’s third satire features the long complaint of Umbricius, a friend of the satirist who has had enough of Rome and is leaving. In Oxford Patroclus is the satirist’s friend, and the scene of the satire is transferred from the Porta Capena at the edge of Rome, from where the Appian Way began, to Oxford railway station. Patroclus has been sent down by “B_ll_l’s Dons“, but insists that he’s better off this way.

"Though Oxford hath dismissed her generous son
For toils neglected and for tasks undone,
Small cause of triumph to my foes I leave,
Least cause of all for you, my friends, to grieve.
No theme for pity on this joyous day
Am I who leave, but rather you who stay;
Pent in so vile a 'varsity and town,
Their fate is hardest who are not sent down."

The end of Oxford mimics Juvenal, too, both Umbricius and Patroclus imagining they will meet the satirist again when he goes home, in Juvenal’s case to Aquinum (3.318-22):

"But thou, my friend, the partner of my heart,
When that time comes that thou must hence depart,
O come, and read thy satires to thy friend,
And mock at Oxford, safe in Ponders End!"

In the body of the poem the irritations of a frustrated Roman are replaced by scenes from undergraduate life. These cleverly parallel Umbricius’ concerns at times, dreadful student journalism standing in for the debased literary life of Rome, for instance — another respect we’ll consider later.

I first came across this version of Juvenal in Martin Winkler’s fine Penguin Classics collection Juvenal in English from 2001, where the author is identified as Geoffrey Howard, but Winkler appears to have no further information about him. Geoffrey Howard clearly was the author, as will emerge, but I’m not quite sure how his name came to light. It seems to be something to do with the second publication in 1922, when the author identified himself as G.H., and his address as “Temple”, and there is evidence here that his identity was known in some circles in 1929. The author of this copy of Oxford, a satire, Charles W. Baty, who inscribed it in around 1920, was equally confident:

Confusion reigns to the present day, nevertheless, among antiquarian book dealers and in bibliographical works such as Minor British Poets, 1789-1918 (Davis, Calif., 1983-6), Vol. 4 no. 302, the issue being, aside from the anonymity of the original publication, an unfortunate coincidence that a work with exactly the same title, Oxford, a satire, had been published by Sir Andrew Caldecott in 1907. The minimal authorial indications provided by the 1922 edition of Howard’s satire, at any rate, initials and a legal connection, are the key to a fuller biography.

By 1922 Geoffrey Howard was a practicing barrister, called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1919. He was a quietly successful lawyer, a County Court Judge from 1952 until his retirement in 1963, but he had broader interests than the Law, as we shall see. He died in 1973 at the age of 83.

At the time of his composition of Oxford, a satire Howard was an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, studying Modern History between 1908 and 1911 (my thanks to Judith Curthoys, Archivist at Christ Church, for those details). One thought I had after working out his dates was that between an undergraduate publication in 1910 and a republication in 1922 most likely lay service during the First World War, and he did indeed serve in France as an officer in the Royal Fusiliers. A poignant memorial on the Christ Church site records the death of his older brother Arthur (who had attended the same college, and served in the same regiment). Arthur Howard had been severely wounded in 1917, but died of his wounds only in 1923. Three poems by Geoffrey Howard feature in the wartime publication Soldier poets, songs of the fighting men (1916), important context for the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, as explained by P. Norgate, “Wilfred Owen and the Soldier Poets”, The Review of English Studies 40 (1989), 516-530, and they offer strong incidental confirmation that Howard’s talent lay in comic verse.

The most significant thing I’ve discovered, though as always not necessarily ahead of someone else whom I’ve missed, is that the author of Oxford, a satire, alongside his legal career, enjoyed modest literary celebrity between the wars, and that his post-war publications betray a clear affinity with his Oxford juvenilia/juvenalia.

The evidence (starting from a hint in a posting on comes from a short obituary of Howard in The Times on May 31, 1973 and a personal reminiscence by the eminent lawyer Graham Swanwick on June 8. In addition, one of Howard’s pupils was Elizabeth Lane, the first woman High Court Judge in England, and her autobiography, Hear the other side (Audi alteram partem) (1985), has a little more detail on him. It emerges, at any rate, that under the pseudonym “Marmaduke Dixey” Howard wrote extensively for Punch and produced, alongside two satirical novels, a collection of poems, and an extended humorous poem, published in the early days of contract bridge, on how to play that game. The collection, Words, Beasts and Fishes (1936), consists of amusing animal fables displaying the same deftness and wit as Oxford. His model in this book is interesting, too, the Fables of John Gay, one of the Golden Age of English satirists sometimes referred to as Scriblerians. The Beauties of Bridge (1938) similarly suggests the mock heroics of Pope in The Rape of the Lock, while the cover of the 1922 edition of Oxford imitates in language and presentation an eighteenth-century Scriblerian publication. To imply as this cover does that Juvenal is the fons et origo of at least one thread of English verse satire is of course uncontroversial.

Well, if I have reunited “Marmaduke Dixey” with his earlier composition in and about Oxford, that is one thing achieved. But I did say that Oxford also successfully captures some less palatable aspects of his model. Any authentic reinvention of Juvenal is going to be distasteful by the very nature of Juvenalian satire, as I’ve suggested, a poetry of critical abuse that respects nothing and is indiscriminate in whom it offends. Here, by way of illustration, depressingly predictable, both satirists, 1,800 years apart, engage in a passing, almost casual, anti-semitism, and in both cases this oldest and most persistent of prejudices attributes to Jews a reprehensible commitment to money-making.

But perhaps the key component of Juvenal 3, on the evidence of its many imitators, at least, is the more extended attack that it contains on a people, the Greeks, who by their migration to Rome, it claims, combined with the deceitful character that the satire attributes to them, have made the city uninhabitable for “authentic” Romans like Umbricius. A trend in the numerous post-Renaissance versions of Juvenal’s poem is to replace those Greeks with whatever contemporary group offered the best equivalent scapegoat. For Samuel Johnson and his rather snappier predecessor John Oldham (1653-83), both of whom relocate Juvenal’s satire from Rome to London (Johnson’s London was first published in 1738), it was the French who had ruined it, while in Edward Burnaby Greene’s The Satires of Juvenal Paraphrastically Imitated, and Adapted to the Times (1763), Juvenal’s non possum ferre, Quirites,/ Graecam Vrbem, “I cannot endure, fellow Romans, a Rome turned Greek”, becomes “unmoved I cannot see/ poor England sink a Scottish colony.” Passages from all these authors can be found in Winkler’s excellent anthology.

Oxford, a satire also targets an out-group responsible for Patroclus’ alienation from Oxford, and while Howard’s victims feature only momentarily, it is an interesting target he chooses. He has been pillorying student publications:

Yet, O my friends, these wretched rags forgive!
Who could write English where few English live?
Dark, alien tribes have driv'n our native far,
And all the Ganges flows into the Cher.
Such Ethiopian hosts the 'High' adorn,
Such crowds of Rajahs jostle in the 'Corn,'
That should the timid Briton come in sight
They start, affronted, at a face that's white!

The ingenuity here, for instance the transformation of iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes, “Long since has the Syrian Orontes flowed into the Tiber”, is undeniable, and as offensive as Juvenal’s xenophobia. A further point, though, is that, whether Howard considered this or not, the target matches Juvenal’s Greeks quite precisely, since the presence of these Indian and African students at Oxford was as much a consequence of empire as the Greek inhabitants of Rome.

Sumita Mukherjee’s Nationalism, emigration and migrant identities: the England-returned (2010) is an interesting study of Indian students in the U.K. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular for providing the perspective of those students, often from personal archives. One detail will convey Oxford’s Juvenalian exaggeration: in the Lee-Warner “Report into the Position of Indian Students in the UK” of 1907 (not officially published until 1922), out of 700 Indian students at universities in the UK the vast majority were in London, while in Oxford there were a sum total of 32 (Mukherjee p.17). Numbers at Oxford did increase rapidly after 1906, when the requirement to sit Responsions, entrance examinations including compulsory Latin or Greek, were relaxed (English could be taken instead of the ancient languages, Mukherjee p.22). But they were never as large as Oxford, a satire implies, needless to say. A pie chart reproduced by Mukherjee (p.24) giving the proportions of “Dominion and Indian” students at UK universities or related institutions gives 45% for Indians and 37% for Africans (including 11% Egyptians, counted separately), incidentally, bearing in mind Howard’s reference to students from Africa.

The aim in making British higher education available to students from India (and African colonies) was to give the elites of India and elsewhere in the Empire an investment in the continuation of British rule, especially if, as in many cases, they returned to government service such as the Indian Civil Service (ICS). In practice, though, an inevitable consequence of gathering together students from all over India as Indians was to promote nationalist discussion and feeling (Mukherjee 47), additionally raising the reasonable question in the minds of these students why suitably qualified Indians should not be running their own country. It is possible that when Howard was writing his satire the status of Indian students was particularly on the agenda, as in July 1909 an Indian student in London, Madan Lal Dhingra, had assassinated William Curzon Wyllie, a high official of the British Indian government. This story also emerges from the same milieu, on a warmer note.

What we have in Oxford, a satire, then, is an early work by a writer who would achieve some prominence between the wars, and it offers some evidence why. Howard/Dixey was a poet steeped in Classical and eighteenth-century satire, and achieved an idiom — mock-elevated, rhetorically pointed, hyperbolic — that captures unusually well the Juvenalian voice, and targets its victims just as disproportionately as his notorious Roman model. I encourage my students to see that Juvenal, though writing in the early second century AD, was often rehearsing highly conventional lines of attack dating back as far as his great precursor, C. Lucilius, at the end of the second century BC. Details of Juvenal’s exposure of the Greekness of Rome in Satire 3 closely (and self-consciously) evoke complaints that Lucilius had made — but then Romans had been worrying that they were turning into Greeks for as long as they’d been Romans, and satire was always a privileged vehicle for Rome’s deepest self-expression and anxieties.

Howard was in obvious ways applying a critical template of hoary antiquity to Oxford University, but some of the most Juvenalian details of this poem also offer glimpses of circumstances in 1910, not least the irrational anxiety, expressed in spectacularly racist terms, that the colonised were usurping the privileges of the coloniser.

A final thought, though, returning to the indiscriminate character of satire in the tradition of Juvenal. There are a few minor changes between the 1910 and 1922 editions of Oxford, a satire, and four lines added to the 1922 version are perhaps worth noting. It is a supplement to a list of tedious visitors an undergraduate can expect to his rooms, and “Miles” is the Latin miles, “soldier”:

No longer to my rooms shall Claudius stroll,
Drink all my whisky, and explain his soul,
Or, sitting hourly in my easy chair,
Twiddle his thumbs and wonder if they're there!
The melancholy Miles shall no more
Spread out his matches and re-win the war
In tones so tedious, and with slang so stale,
You'd rather face the battle than the tale. [1922]

There is truly nothing, and nobody, that Juvenal and his imitators are unprepared to satirize, it seems.

I have scanned both the 1910 and 1922 editions of Oxford, a satire in my possession, and you should find them at their respective links.


What follows is sheer speculation, but I should start with an explanation.

Last summer I went with my family to Deal in Kent for a week, and one day, intrigued by theories about Julius Caesar’s landing place in 55 and 54 BC, as one is bound to be, I took a long walk down the coast from Deal to within sight of the White Cliffs at Kingsdown.

In Kingsdown I found myself walking past something fine and unexpected, a beautifully presented Edwardian house by the sea with a Latin text carved in its façade.

The text reads si mea laeta placet casa tu precor hospes adesto, or with punctuation, si mea laeta placet casa, tu, precor, hospes, adesto; in English literally, “If my happy cottage is pleasing, do, I pray, stranger, be here”, or more fluently, “If you like my cheerful cottage, stranger, do please come in.” You may notice, though, that some of the letters are larger than others (I pick them out in bold): SI MEA LAETA PLACET CASA TV PRECOR HOSPES ADESTO. These larger letters, understood as Roman numerals, add up (I + V + L + L + C + C + C + D + M) to 1906, apparently the date when the house was constructed. In other words, it’s a chronogram, about which I blogged here, while here I pondered a connection between this chronogram in Deal and the examples from Oxford (including my own college, Brasenose) that I’d discussed in that blog. I so pondered because this example in Deal is a great piece of work, the nicest I’ve seen. Like the chronogram at Brasenose it is in verse, a dactylic hexameter, and it would be an extremely elegant composition even if it weren’t also a dating formula.

Well, I did some rapid research on the internet yesterday, and I started with one slighter stronger assumption, and one decidedly weak. The strong one is that chronograms of this quality are not easy to produce and are thus likely to be the work of a limited number of people. The weak is the one I’ve mentioned: given that I’ve identified two chronograms in Oxford, one on the façade of Frewin Hall from 1888 and another on the front of the Rhodes Building from 1911, as the work of Charles Shadwell, Fellow and later Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, I suspected that this example might have something to do with him too.

What I established yesterday was that in 1963, in the will of Alan Bruce Blaxland, the house bearing the chronogram, named “Pleasaunce” (a name alluded to in PLACET), was given as his residence at the time of his death. Alan Bruce Blaxland C.B. O.B.E. had been a senior officer in the British Indian Army during the Second World War, his most controversial role perhaps coming after the war when he chaired the court-martials of men who had joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army: he died on September 2, 1963 in the Victoria Hospital, Deal, at the age of 71.

In the 1901 and 1911 censuses we find Alan Bruce Blaxland at the ages of 8 and 18 at home with his family, two further brothers and two sisters, his mother Constance and father Bruce, a Church of England clergyman. In 1901 Bruce Blaxland was vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Lilleshall, Shropshire, and in 1911 of the Abbey Church in Shewsbury.

And it’s with Bruce that I start to indulge in wild speculation. The first step is the observation that both Bruce and Constance were from east Kent, Bruce from Canterbury, and Constance from Eastry, which is just a few miles from Kingsdown — my guess is that the house Alan Bruce Blaxland was living in in 1963 was built by his parents as a holiday home back where they spent their childhoods. The next step, and the ice gets less and less secure the further out I venture, involves the Revd. Bruce Blaxland’s education, since according to this very comprehensive account of his career (and I’ve checked out some of the relevant details in The Times archive), he studied Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford from 1879 to 1882, achieving a First Class degree.

This was, needless to say, precisely when Charles Shadwell was a fellow of Oriel, with his hobbies (as listed in Who’s Who) of “punting, billiards, chess problems, chronograms”. (One can read Walter Pater’s essay Diaphaneité, which describes an ideal personality, living a “purity of life”, modelled on his friend Charles Shadwell, and wonder about those recreations.) From 1874 to 1887, Shadwell, a man devoted to his college, was treasurer of Oriel, and from 1905 to 1914 its head. In between he lived at Frewin Hall, Oxford, carried out extensive renovations, and popped a Latin, hexametrical chronogram over the front door. I can think of any number of ways by which Blaxland and Shadwell might have become acquainted, and I’m obviously imagining that either Bruce Blaxland got into chronography himself when an undergraduate, inspired by Shadwell (in which case he was an excellent pupil), or (and I think this more likely) Blaxland requested a chronogram from Shadwell at a later date. The coincidence of an Oriel connection just seems too great to me otherwise.

Anyhow, it’s my blog, and I can speculate as much as I like.

Happy media

Hercules Epitrapezios in the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, and image from the same:

A highlight of a challenging term has been teaching, with Barney Taylor, a new course on late first/early second-century Roman literature–Martial and Statius so far, with Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Juvenal to come next term. One text this brought me back to is the fourth book of Statius’ “occasional” (i.e. lighter, officially non-epic) poetry, Silvae. I’ve a personal soft spot for the Silvae, and Silvae 4 especially, because it was while, in 1997 in Dublin, I was listening to a talk on Silvae 4.3, Statius’ celebration of the new Via Domitiana that the emperor had built, a quick road connection to Naples, that I had an idea from which, a decade later, this book finally emerged. The idea of Musa Pedestris was to encourage readers of Roman poetry to pay more attention to the metrical form that it adopted, which (I argued) potentially contributed as much meaning to its poetry as any other element of the composition. The various metrical forms that Roman poetry adopted had their own independent character, established by usage (and theory about usage) over time, and this could shape in interesting ways the poetry they carried.

Well, in a fit of nostalgia, here’s a blog that illustrates the thesis, or tries to, that if you ignore the metre of a Roman poem, you potentially miss something fundamental. The subject is three interrelated poems about a statue of Hercules, by Statius (Silvae 4.6) and Martial (9.43 and 44), but first a couple of general rules about metrical character or ethos by way of introduction; with a warning that what I’m ultimately going to argue here is that the poets want us to see their manipulation of metrical structures as in some sense equivalent to the sculpting of a bronze statuette.

Statius’ poem is in a metre that we call the dactylic hexameter, and which the ancients as often referred to as the “heroic verse”. This was by convention the most elevated poetic form, a metre fit to tell the tales of heroic figures of epic poetry like Achilles or Aeneas. (The notion that combinations of long and short syllables could have a perceived character might seem odd, but here and here are striking illustrations of how well-established it was; and here a less striking one.) In any case the hexameter is Statius’ favourite metre in the Silvae, and among other things allows this supposedly occasional poetry to rise at times to the level of epic. Another metre, meanwhile, the hendecasyllable, had been much used by Catullus, and is both Statius’ choice for a number of the Silvae and the second-most common metre in Martial’s epigrams. When used by both Martial and Statius it can evoke a Catullan atmosphere (it lends a sense of Catullan spontaneity, freedom and youthful energy to Domitian’s new road in Silvae 4.3, for instance), but it was also considered a kind of polar opposite of the grand hexameter, a vehicle for trivialities, not heroes. The choice of metre for 4.3, essentially a panegyric of the emperor, was thus also arrestingly unexpected. Elsewhere the hendecasyllable is used by Statius for festive or Saturnalian poems.

The three poems I’m concerned with here all address a single topic, a miniature statue of Hercules (less than Roman foot high, according to Statius, 4.6.39) that served as a table ornament and was owned by a man with the excellent name Novius Vindex. The poems are in hexameters (Statius, Silvae 4.6), hendecasyllables (Martial 9.44), and in the case of Martial 9.43 elegiac couplets. A final word on that last metrical system. The elegiac couplet combines a hexameter line with a shorter dactylic length known as a pentameter, and one consequence is that it can carry with it a sense of being closely related to the heroic hexameter, since that provides its first line, yet also inferior, since a pentameter, a shorter length, always follows the hexameter. But note that this kinship with the hexameter securely establishes elegiacs as higher in the metrical pecking order than hendecasyllables.

Here is one example from elsewhere in the Silvae of the kind of subtle play with metrical associations that these poets are capable of.

Silvae 1.2 is an epithalamion, a marriage poem, for L. Arruntius Stella, a patron of poets such as Statius and Martial and a poet in his own right, the author of love elegies in the tradition of Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid. These had their trademark metre, the elegiac couplet that we’ve mentioned, a combination of a dactylic hexameter and pentameter often said to fall short of the epic hexameter by one foot (pente < hex). Statius’ poem (playfully) presents Stella’s marriage to his new bride Violentilla as an abandonment of his elegiac life of dissolute love (his formerly solutus amor must now obey the laws of marriage, 28-9), and the metre of Statius’ own poem, hexameter, is made to express in its own right Stella’s new status as a respectable married man. Elegy herself, embodiment of the metrical form of elegiac poetry, and of the kind of poetry for which that metre was the vehicle, attends their wedding. In Ovid’s love elegies Elegy had been portrayed as limping (deficient in one foot, geddit?) and all the more attractive for it (Amores 3.1.7-10). Statius’ Silvae have survived by a whisker, and the text is often difficult to reconstruct. But at Silvae 1.2.7-10 Elegy tries to slip herself unnoticed among the nine Muses who are hymning the happy couple, and she does something with her foot (the critical word is unclear, but it may suggest a built-up shoe) to conceal her tell-tale elegiac limp. It’s a brilliant conceit, even if we can’t quite see exactly how it works: if Elegy loses her limp, we have the heroic hexameter, and the hexameter here means marital respectability.

But back to Novius Vindex’s statue of Hercules. It was a representation of the the hero is a relaxed state that had both miniature and full-size (and larger than full-size) versions in antiquity (on this ambiguously titled “Hercules Epitrapezios” see M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classical Art from Greece to Rome, 197-8). The originals, big and small, of this image were attributed to Lysippus (on whose remarkable influence as a sculptor of Heracles see here), and numerous copies survive to this day. But Vindex’s statue is claimed by the poets to be an original, the work of Lysippus’ own hand, and furthermore to boast an illustrious history of ownership, having passed from Alexander to Hannibal and on to the Roman dictator L. Sulla. This seems unlikely, although all three of these men did display particular respect for Heracles/Melqart/Hercules, it is fair to say.

Sitzender Herkules, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna,

A key theme in the poems on Vindex’s statue is the tension inherent in a statue of a great hero (and a statue that had allegedly belonged to some of the most famous figures in history) which is diminutive in size and function, and in the possession of a private citizen. Statius develops this play between big and small, heroic and domestic, public and private at some length, but Martial does similar things in his first epigram (9.43), which can illustrate the theme:

Hic qui dura sedens porrecto saxa leone
       mitigat, exiguo magnus in aere deus,
quaeque tulit spectat resupino sidera uultu,
       cuius laeua calet robore, dextra mero:
non est fama recens nec nostri gloria caeli;               5
       nobile Lysippi munus opusque uides.
hoc habuit numen Pellaei mensa tyranni,
       qui cito perdomito uictor in orbe iacet;
hunc puer ad Libycas iurauerat Hannibal aras;
       iusserat hic Sullam ponere regna trucem.              10
offensus uariae tumidis terroribus aulae
       priuatos gaudet nunc habitare lares,
utque fuit quondam placidi conuiua Molorchi,
       sic uoluit docti Vindicis esse deus.

“This one that sits and softens the hard rocks with outspread/ lionskin, a mighty god in a miniscule bronze,/ and gazes at the stars he once bore with upturned face,/ whose left hand is busy with a club, his right with wine–/ he is no recent object of fame nor the glory of a Roman chisel;/ it is the noble work and gift of Lysippus that you see./ This deity the table of the tyrant of Pella possessed,/ who lies at rest a victor in a world he swiftly subdued;/ by him the young Hannibal swore an oath at a Libyan altar;/ it was he that bade pitiless Sulla lay down his kingship./ Discomfited by the inflamed terrors of diverse courts,/ he rejoices now to dwell in a private house,/ and as once he dined with peaceful Molorchus,/ so the god wished to be the guest of learned Vindex.”

Martial wrote two poems on the same subject, as mentioned. In other words Vindex’s statue provokes in Martial a metrical game he occasionally plays, presenting alternative accounts of a circumstance in different metres, elegiacs and hendecasyllables, the metres seemingly shaping each treatment according to their traditional character. The phenomenon is investigated by Patricia Watson, “Contextualising Martial’s metres”, in R.R. Nauta, H.-J. Van Dam & J.J.L. Smolenaars (eds.), Flavian Poetry (2006), 285-98.

Martial 9.44’s approach to the subject, in hendecasyllables, is strikingly different from his preceding poem. Whereas the elegiacs we have just seen are overtly poetic and formal in expression, 9.44 is colloquial, realistic, and humorous:

Alciden modo Vindicis rogabam
esset cuius opus laborque felix.
risit, nam solet hoc, leuique nutu
‘Graece numquid’ ait ‘poeta nescis?
inscripta est basis indicatque nomen.’              5
Lysippum lego, Phidiae putavi.

“I recently asked Vindex’s Hercules/ whose work and happy creation he was./ He laughed, as is his way, and with a light nod/ “Poet”, he said, “don’t you know Greek?/ My base is inscribed and shows the name.” I read Lysippus. I thought it was Phidias’s.”

This is a controversial poem. Change the text of the first line a bit and it’s Vindex being questioned, not the god himself; and the point of the last line is elusive, too. But what matters for my purposes is the metrical self-awareness that Martial sees fit to flaunt in his book of epigrams, largely for its own sake. I’d merely make a provisional further point at this stage that Martial’s poetic reception of Vindex’s bijou statue of Hercules shares with that statue a mastery of high and low, the capacity to capture it in the elevated, aestheticised terms of dactylic elegy, and also in the colloquial mode of the hendecasyllable.

Statius also seems determined to create a poetic artefact that shares characteristics with the statue it celebrates, and again his approach has a metrical dimension, I think.

Silvae 4.6 addresses Vindex’s statue in terms so close to Martial’s as to make us suspect the guiding hand of Vindex in each–intriguingly, the two leading Flavian poets never explicitly acknowledge each other’s existence. Again, a key conceit in Statius’ poem is the grandeur of the figure of Hercules paradoxically captured in a tiny figure, finesque inclusa per artos/ maiestas (35-6), “small to the sight, huge in impression” (37-8, paruusque uideri/ sentirique ingens). And like Martial again, Statius’ celebration of this diminutive masterpiece ranges between poetic styles. In this case Silvae 4.6 traverses the full spectrum of poetic registers from satire to epic before settling in an intermediary position that the “occasional” Silvae find congenial.

Let me explain what I mean, and what the implications for metre are. Verse satire was a genre pursued by Horace, Persius and Juvenal (and C. Lucilius before them) and was considered Rome’s only poetic innovation–everything else they borrowed from the Greeks. Satire was a genre of criticism, and more generally a poetry that concerned itself with the lowest, meanest aspects of human life. Satire is never entirely convinced that it’s really poetry at all, so unedifying is its content. (It’s a melancholy fact that the one genre of poetry Romans could call their own isn’t certain it is poetry.) A development that crystallized satire’s character was C. Lucilius’ decision to adopt the dactylic hexameter as the signature metre of this anti-genre–an outrageous choice, since it matched the most elevated metre to the tawdry topics of satire. This reinforced satire’s status as a response, or antidote, to the artificiality of epic poetry. Every subsequent satirical hexameter, one might say, advertised the mismatch of content and vehicle.

Statius in 4.6 frames his encounter with Vindex as a dinner to which Vindex has invited him, and he starts his poem with extensive reminiscence of Horace’s Satires, when he insists the joy of the dinner was not a matter of luxurious food, for instance (Kathy Coleman’s commentary to Silvae 4 cites parallels in Horace), but most obviously at the very start, where Statius wandering idly in Rome, described in a conversational tone, strongly evokes Horace doing the same in Satire 1.9 (Statius’ first line alludes to the first and last line of Horace’s poem). But the dinner-by-invitation, cena, and the sermo, “conversation”, that was conventionally the essence of a good cena (the quality of the sermo chez Vindex is singled out by Statius), were the bread and butter (so to speak) of satirical poetry.

Soon enough, though, Statius’ poem rises to a higher register, as Amphitryoniades enters the poem, “Hercules son of Amphitryon” (33), a grandiose epic patronymic filling half the line, and especially when Statius starts enumerating his eminent previous owners. Here is Hannibal’s spectacular introduction by way of illustration (75-8):

Mox Nasamoniaco decus admirabile regi        
possessum; fortique deo libauit honores
semper atrox dextra periuroque ense superbus

“Presently the marvellous treasure came to belong to the Nasamonian king: the valiant god he, Hannibal, honoured by libation, ever savage with his right hand and arrogant with treacherous sword.”

Statius’ poem will ultimately find its way to an accommodation of these divergent registers, the god Hercules still epically mighty, but relaxed and at peace (and pint-sized, of course) in Vindex’s private home, and this compromise typifies the intermediary poetics to which the Silvae aspire. The interplay of large and small, high and low, in Statius’ poem and Martial’s epigrams has been well investigated by Charles McNelis, “Ut sculptura poesis: Statius, Martial, and the Hercules Epitrapezios of Novius Vindex,” AJPh 129 (2008), 255-76, with an emphasis on Callimachus as a model (Molorchus in particular points in his direction), and McNelis draws out the emulative impulse of Martial’s and Statius’s response to the statue–poetic achievements comparable in artistic dexterity to the statuette itself are the only adequate way to celebrate it.

All I’d like to add is a proper recognition of the role of satire in Statius’ poem, and an observation about metre that links both poets. Martial and Statius react to Vindex’s statue with poetry that seeks to match the quality of a valuable artefact, and that matches it in one particular respect: both poets advertise a control of the high and the low parallel to that of the sculptor Lysippus, a mastery of the spectrum of registers from the mundane to the magnificent. In Martial’s case this is conveyed by two poems in contrasting metres and concomitant styles; but Statius also exploits the scope available to him within the Roman history of a single metre, the dactylic hexameter, shifting between the hexametrical poles of satire and epic with as much deftness as Martial flips from elegiacs to hendecasyllables.

When I was writing about metre many years ago I came to feel that the Romans regarded the metrical forms of their poetry as closely akin to physical structures. Michael Roberts considers Statius a harbinger of the style of late-antique Latin poetry, and in The Jeweled Style (1989), p.21 has this to say of the latter:

“Words are viewed as possessing a physical presence of their own, distinct from any considerations of sense or syntax. They may be moved like building blocks or pieces in a puzzle to create ever new formal constructs. It is this sense of the physical existence of words and of meter as their structural matrix that underlies the ingenious verbal patterns of Optatianus Porfyrius and the Technopaegnion of Ausonius.”

Not the least important respect in which Statius and Martial craft an adequate response to Lysippus’ miniature god, creating poetic artefacts comparable to an exquisite sculpture, is in their absolute mastery of the poetic structures we call metres.

Statua colossale di Ercole, da Alba Fucens (Aq), museo archeologico nazionale di Chieti. Image courtesy of


In the last book of Homer’s Iliad, Priam ventures out of the safety of the city of Troy and makes his way to the camp of the Achilles, who is keeping with him the corpse of Priam’s eldest son Hector and daily tying it to his chariot and dragging it around the walls of Troy. Priam is a vulnerable old man moving across No Man’s Land in darkness to a place of greatest danger, and there on the plain of Troy the god Hermes comes to meet him (Iliad 24.360-71, tr. Hammond):

“But the very god, the kindly one, came close to him, and took the old man by the hand and spoke to him with questions: ‘Where is it, father, that you are driving your horses and mules through the immortal night, when other men are sleeping? Are you not frightened of the Achaians who breathe fury? They are your enemies and intend you harm, and they are close by. If any of them were to see you coming through the quick black night with so many treasures, what would become of you then? You are not young yourself, and your companion here is too old for defence against a man who starts a fight with you. But I will do you no harm, and indeed I will protect you from any who would—I look on you as my own father.'”

But what has the god Hermes got to do with the three-metre tall, solid bronze sculpture of a foot that is pictured at the top?

A valid question, to which the beginning of an answer is that the title of that sculpture, a work by William Tucker, is Messenger, and an account of the thinking behind it runs as follows: “Using the energy in the moment of lift of a foot leaping, Tucker describes through just one element of anatomy the idea of the classical messenger Hermes perhaps taking flight.”

William Tucker is an extremely distinguished modernist sculptor who also happens to have been a student at my college, Brasenose, studying Modern History between 1955 and 1958. Earlier in the year he contacted our Fellow in Fine Arts, Ian Kiaer, to offer one of his sculptures to his old college. After some consideration, it has been agreed that Messenger will be installed in the near future at Frewin, an accommodation annexe of Brasenose College on the other side of central Oxford.

Frewin is about to enjoy a major facelift. It is a fascinating spot, in many ways of greater historic interest than the College’s main site. It was a college in its own right once, St Mary’s, and while it lasted Erasmus spent a term there. At its heart is an old house, Frewin Hall, which I’ve written about before, and which has elements from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but a cellar that dates back to the twelfth, and a façade we owe to an eccentric, chronogram-obsessed resident at the end of the nineteenth century. Frewin Hall was badly chopped about in the eighties, but it is going to be restored in the next few years, with its ground floor suite of panelled rooms turned into a student common room/library. I’m excited also, after a chat with the architect, about the possibilities for my favourite space in the entire College, the Norman cellar.

At the same time, a beautiful new accommodation building, planning permission permitting, will be rising to the south of Frewin Hall, and the green areas of Frewin will be replanted and relandscaped. A gift from the greatest artist ever to emerge from Brasenose College, which will be a central feature of the new gardens, could not have come at a more opportune time.

Tucker’s style of sculpture has evolved over time from abstract works like this at MoMA to the more figurative style represented by Messenger. It remains the case that the impact of this piece derives, like any sculpture, from intangible things like size, material and texture as much as from any real object or associations it may evoke. But one of the best arguments for giving Messenger a permanent place at the heart of our educational establishment is the meaning conveyed by Tucker’s sculpture of a rising foot inspired by the messenger god Hermes.

Which brings us back to Hermes in the last book of the Iliad, lending his protection to Priam in the space between Troy and the Achaean camp. Because that is Hermes in his very element. We could consider this fascinating god the denizen of the spaces between, or the divine patron of transition, but in any case Hermes’ special area of jurisdiction is connections. He is of course the means of communication, as the divine herald, between gods and humans, and in a moment like his descent in Aeneid Book 4 to instruct Aeneas to leave Carthage, one level of interpretation is to see the god as the action of the special capacity, reason, that unites gods and humans, according to the ancients. Aeneas when Mercury appears to him “sees reason” in more senses than one. Hermes/Mercury bridges other spaces, escorting the souls of the dead from this world to the next, and a patron also of commerce. He invents the lyre and music; he could be understood as the inventor of language itself. He is the god of thieves and protection against thieves–again, that undefined territory in-between.

I quoted to my colleagues a neat summary of Hermes’ jurisdiction from Arlene Allan, Hermes (Routledge, 2018), 18:

“We may, with [Robert] Parker, categorise this involvement [of Hermes] in mortal life according to the triad ‘transition/communication/exchange’: he moves individuals and societies from ignorance to knowledge (communication); from point A to point B (transition); and from want to satisfaction (exchange). Or we might, as previously suggested, prefer to think of these three general areas as subsumable under the single word ‘translation’ in its various shades of meaning. However, the idea of Hermes can be further articulated by identifying what is accomplished through his interaction. Collectively the evidence points to Hermes as the power behind purposeful individual and systemic movement kata moiran (‘according to destiny’): his is the power that makes connections and builds relationships.”

A college is a society of learning, and Hermes the messenger at so many levels a perfect embodiment of its ethos. Tucker’s statue, with beautiful economy, and a lovely tension between solid metal and the deft movement it represents, captures with a brazen body part, I would propose, the essence of the College of the Brazen Nose.