(Image from Bernard (1969), 339)
A short blog, and a pendant, really, to my wild speculations in the last one.
I’ve been reading this excellent little book on Ai Khanum, the “Greek city” on the Oxus river in NE Afghanistan that was excavated by French archaeologists between 1964 and 1978. An image of the amazing find at the top of this blog, the perfectly lifelike foot of a god (on which more later), left me wondering, given all the perils that have beset Afghan antiquities in the last few decades, what had happened to it. Eventually I realised that I already knew the answer.
The foot in question was discovered in 1968 during the excavation of one of the major religious building discovered at Ai Khanum, the “Temple à redans” or “Temple with indented niches”. It is the fore portion of a left foot, sandalled. The French excavator Paul Bernard, in his report of the season’s excavations (CRAI 113 , 313-55), has a marvellous few pages (338-41) extrapolating from this 27cm-long artefact to the statue it originally came from.
It was the cult statue of the temple, the god to whom the temple was dedicated, and had been positioned at the back of the cella of the shrine, the focus of a worshipper’s attention. It was of colossal proportions, two or three times life size, and the fact that only extremities of the statue were found, coupled with the shape of the back of the foot fragment, led Bernard to conclude that it was an acrolith, its head, hands and feet carved from marble and the rest of its body in unbaked clay moulded over a wooden armature, a technique typical of Greek sculpture at the time of the construction of the temple at Ai Khanum, about 250BC. Bernard was convinced that the foot could only have been carved by a Greek sculptor.
The god’s foot was sandalled, and again it is a typically Greek form of sandal that he was wearing. The straps of the sandal are decorated with palmettes and roses, and also with a motif that may point to the identity of the god represented, two winged thunderbolts. On this basis Bernard proposed that the god was Zeus, and furthermore that the dimensions of the cella in which he was located suggested a seated figure, “a Zeus enthroned in majesty as he is represented in Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coinage, with his left arm drawn back holding the sceptre and his right hand advanced carrying the eagle of a figure of Victory.” If he was Zeus, though, he was most likely a Zeus assimilated to an eastern divinity: the temple in which this Greek statue sat or stood was distinctly un-Greek in architectural form and hence, one assumes, liturgical practice. Maybe he was both Zeus and Ahura Mazda or Mithra, or maybe (my personal favourite suggestion) the river god Oxus himself.
This fragment of Zeus enthroned on the banks of the Oxus in time took its place in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, in its heyday one of the great museums of the world, but one that (like the country it represents) has suffered much misfortune since. The damage wrought by the Taliban with their pickaxes in the Museum is familiar, but the foot was no longer there to be smashed when the Taliban came in 2001. Between 1992 and 1994 Kabul fell into chaos as a bewildering range of armed groups fought for control of the capital. In the midst of intense civil conflict the Museum suffered structural damage, and there was extensive looting, a lot of it pretty obviously to order. When in 1995 an inventory was taken of the Museum’s holdings, the foot was gone, along with many treasures from this remarkable institution, most notably the contents of its superb pre-war coin room.
From the mid-nineties until 2001 the trail went cold, but in April 2001 news reports surfaced announcing the presence of Zeus’ foot in Japan. On April 17, 2001 the Japan Times reported that “the marble foot of Zeus, dating back to the third century B.C.,” would be put on display at the Ancient Orient Museum in Tokyo. The report claimed that the artefact, illegally removed from Afghanistan and put up for sale on the international art market, was bought by “an anonymous benefactor in Tokyo”, “on condition that it be returned to Afghanistan when peace is restored there.”
This is all a little murky. April 2001 was a convenient moment to come clean about Afghan antiquities bought on the art market. In February Taliban had entered the Museum in Kabul and smashed any statues they considered idolatrous; in March the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed. It was a good time for Afghan antiquities not to be in Afghanistan, and for art dealers to be heroes.
That may be excessively cynical. Earlier this year, at any rate, concrete commitments were made to return the foot to the Afghans. (I saw these reports in the summer, but didn’t put two and two [or should that be toe and toe?] together.) The context is the imminent arrival in Japan, from the start of 2016, of the touring exhibition of material from the National Museum in Kabul, “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul”, since 2008 under the aegis of National Geographic. This exhibition has been staged in Europe and the US, Canada and Australia; it was at the British Museum in 2011. In connection with the exhibition’s arrival in Japan, it was announced that 102 Afghan artefacts from the National Museum collected by the Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Properties would be added to the touring exhibition, including “a fragment of the Left Foot of Zeus (3rd Century BC)”.
The Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Properties is certainly kosher. It was established in 2001 by a Japanese artist and academic called Ikuo Hirayama, a survivor of Hiroshima who had visited Afghanistan in the 60s and 70s, drawn most of all to Bamiyan, a place of course associated with Japan’s national religion of Buddhism, but specifically with the figure of the Chinese monk and traveller Xuanzang, a revered figure who provided the very earliest description of Bamiyan, then a flourishing Buddhist kingdom, when he passed through the Hindu Kush on his way to India in AD630. It was the Silk Road, the scene of Xuanzang’s epic travels, that really fired Hirayama’s imagination.
Hirayama died in 2009, but spoke movingly and forcefully about his experience of Bamiyan as a Buddhist on his first visit in 1968, and what should and should not happen to the site after the statues’ destruction by the Taliban. One of his images of Bamiyan can be seen here, and more of his art here. But if it was Afghanistan’s Buddhist past that drew Hirayama to Afghanistan, he became committed to protecting the country’s cultural heritage as a whole, and this mass repatriation of material is very much his personal legacy. (For another example of this remarkable man’s philanthropy, see this blog on the British Museum’s Hirayama Conservation Studio.) It’s a qualified positive, all the same: a return of artefacts so long after 2001, and at a time when Afghanistan appears a lot less stable than, say, in 2008. One senses there was some tough negotiation in the background. Also, though, the repatriation is not so much to Afghanistan as to a touring display of Afghan treasures that are never actually on display in Afghanistan. That will be the moment, when Afghanistan is peaceful enough, and has a National Museum secure enough, to host in Kabul itself the Begram hoard, the Tillya Tepe gold, and the amazing finds from Ai Khanum, including Clearchus’ inscription and Zeus’ left foot.
I’m particularly fond of globetrotting Greek gods: there is another one here, Athena. And another one, Hercules, here. But the globetrotting foot of a Greek god seems particularly apt, carved by a Greek in Afghanistan, 3,000 miles as the crow flies from Greece, spirited away to Japan via the Peshawar bazaar, now part of a perpetually travelling exhibition. I hope one day I set eyes on it, when that exhibition passes by the UK again, or (who knows?) maybe even in Kabul.
A more misleading title to a blog you will never see. There’s no murder here, no crime at all. No tension or thrill for that matter. There is a slight mystery, maybe even a touch of deceit, but I’d be kidding you if I pretended this was anything other than the most self-indulgent blog I’ve ever written. Not least because it’s about Afghanistan, a place I keep trying not to write about. It’s just too fascinating.
In 2008 I got to visit Ai Khanum, an archaeological site on the northern border of Afghanistan. It is not an easy place to get to, and it was one of the highlights of my life, an unforgettable 40th birthday present from Alan MacDonald, at the time based in Afghanistan with MACCA, the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan. Here I am at the site, the River Oxus and Tajikistan behind me, feeling short alongside Alan and two Afghan MACCA officials, Mohamed Shafiq and Sayed Aga.
Even without the archaeology Ai Khanum is a stunning location, set in the angle created by the confluence of the Amu Darya (Oxus) and the Kokcha rivers. The site was dug by French archaeologists in the sixties and seventies, and they found some quite spectacular things. It was a city established by Alexander or one of his successors 3,000 miles away from Greece, but equipped with characteristically Greek things like a theatre, gymnasium and stocks of olive oil, even Greek texts: some of the texts themselves, parts of a philosophical dialogue, weren’t actually found, but the imprint of their ink had been left on the earth.
Much of what was brought to light at Ai Khanum illustrated the nostalgia of the Greek colonists for their homeland, and there was plenty of evidence also of the compromises they were obliged to make with their new and radically different environment. The city traded in the most famous product of its hinterland in Badakhshan, lapis lazuli, and some of the city’s architecture, and by implication some of its religion, politics and social life, was more middle-eastern than Greek. But however one cuts it, Ai Khanum represented a fascinating encounter between Greek and non-Greek culture.
My very favourite artefact, probably the main reason I wanted to see the place, was a visually unappealing block of stone inscribed with Greek, some lines on the ideal life (originally inscribed at the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, in Greece) and a poem explaining how a man called Clearchus had travelled all the way from Delphi to Ai Khanum and set up the monument when he arrived. There’s more on Ai Khanum and Clearchus’ inscription here; a 3D video tour of the reconstructed city here; and a while back I tried to explain the significance of Clearchus’ journey here. The Delphic wisdom was as follows:
Παῖς ὢν κόσµιος γίνου
As a child, be orderly,
As a youth, be self-controlled,
As an adult, be just,
As an old man, be of good counsel,
When dying, feel no sorrow.
So, an exciting archaeological site for any Classicist, but especially one with a thing about Afghanistan like me. But that’s not quite what I’m concerned with in this blog. Ai Khanum was excavated from 1964-78 by the archaeologists of DAFA, the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan. Something that has intrigued me for a long time is the official account of how the site was originally discovered in the sixties. In 1961, the story goes, the king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, was shown some impressive archaeological fragments (one of them a large Corinthian capital) during a hunting expedition. He then summoned the Director of DAFA, Daniel Schlumberger, to an audience, and requested that the archaeologist visit the site to assess what he had seen. It’s a great story, the King inspiring the archaeological investigation of Afghan history, and I suppose that’s exactly what makes me suspicious.
Ai Khanum had certainly been “discovered”, in some sense, earlier than 1961. In 1836-8 Captain John Wood, on the skirts of a mission to Kabul led by the greatest of the Great Game operators Alexander Burnes, travelled through what is now north-eastern Afghanistan, then the territories of the terrifying ruler of Qunduz, Murad Beg, tracking the course of the river Oxus to its source, or at least one of its sources. Later, on 18 March 1838, during a journey out from Qunduz with Dr Perceval Lord (whose medical treatment of Murad Beg’s brother had been what gained Wood access in the first place), he visited “I-khanam” where, he was informed by locals, “an ancient city called Barbarrah” had stood. A century later in 1926, in the very early days of DAFA (which was established in 1922 by agreement between Amanullah, King of Afghanistan, and the French archaeologist Alfred Foucher), Jules Barthoux set off on a tour of northern Afghanistan in search of promising sites for investigation. One of them was “Aï Khanem”, identified in Barthoux’s notes, in Foucher’s report of his tour to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris, and even on a map of Afghanistan in an article in the French national newspaper Le Temps on 6 July 1930, as a place of archaeological interest.
Now, a lot happened between 1926 and 1961, and Barthoux had parted company from DAFA on poor terms. There’s also a difference between a general sense that there’s something very old to be found, and the very specific pieces of Greek archaeological material to which Zahir Shah alerted Schlumberger. So I’m prepared to believe that Barthoux’s information about Ai Khanum had been forgotten by the sixties, or at least that it hadn’t struck anybody as of urgent importance. The same could be said for John Wood’s account in A Personal Account of a Journey to the Source of the Oxus, although Paul Bernard, who directed the excavations at Ai Khanum, did later base some speculative but very interesting arguments about its early history on Wood’s account.
Let’s assume, at any rate, that it took Zahir Shah’s intervention to alert Daniel Schlumberger and Paul Bernard to the archaeological potential of Ai Khanum. I’m not so sure that it was such a revelation for the King of Afghanistan himself.
In 1923 Burhan al-Din Kushkaki published Rahnuma-ye Qataghan wa Badakhshan, an abridged version of a report by Mohamed Nadir Khan of a tour of north-eastern Afghanistan in 1921-22. Nadir Khan was at the time Minister of Defence, and he and three other ministers had been dispatched by the reforming King Amanullah, shortly after his accession in 1919, to report on various parts of the country. In effect, the Rahnuma was part of Amanullah’s Domesday Book. One of the places visited by Nadir Khan was called ای خانم, Ai Khanum, “which in ancient times had been a city”. Like all previous visitors to the site, Nadir Khan noted the traces of buildings still visible.
Nadir Khan later became king himself, after Amanullah’s overthrow in the events I described here. But probably the most relevant thing about Nadir Khan is that he was the father of Zahir Shah, the king who supposedly discovered Ai Khanum on that hunting expedition in 1961. The Rahnuma was translated into Russian in 1926, for obvious reasons given the proximity of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t translated into French until 1979. But while the archaeologists of DAFA were very likely unaware of it, I doubt that Zahir Shah was.
What I wonder is whether Zahir Shah had reasons over and above an interest in archaeology to push DAFA towards Ai Khanum at this time. Something to be understood is that Zahir, though king, was not the real power in Afghanistan at the time. As Tamim Ansary explains in Games without Rules, his wonderfully readable history of modern Afghanistan, since 1929 Afghanistan had been ruled less by individuals than by a family, or “the Family”, as Ansary calls it, the collectivity of the male members of the Musahiban clan. In 1961 real power resided with Daoud, Zahir’s cousin, officially the Prime Minister. A couple of years later, in 1963, Zahir Shah managed to sideline Daoud, assume power himself, and enact sweeping democratic reforms. In 1973 Daoud took power back from Zahir, but in the process unleashed the radical left-wing forces which would see Daoud ousted and killed in 1978. Up until 1978, however, change of regime in Afghanistan was actually just a reshuffling of the Musahiban cards, the result of internal, and necessarily largely invisible, politicking within the Family.
I think we can see hints of this politicking in the events surrounding Ai Khanum in 1961. Zahir Shah had encouraged Schlumberger to visit Ai Khanum, but Schlumberger had to return to his university in France for a spell and deputed another French archaeologist to go in his place, Marc Le Berre. The King gave Le Berre authorisation to travel to Ai Khanum, but the local governor refused him access. Eventually Schlumberger visited the site in December 1962, and was convinced of its importance. In a report Schlumberger commented on the fundamental importance of securing the approval of the Prime Minister, Daoud, for their proposed excavations. And yet Zahir Shah by his initiative, aided by the spectacular character of the archaeological site he had brought to DAFA’s attention, got his way.
I don’t think it’s too hard to see this as the King using the foreign archaeological mission to assert his own authority. What made Ai Khanum especially sensitive was its location right on the border with the Soviet Union. Generally the French archaeologists in Afghanistan avoided going near the borders; as it was, a token number of Soviet archaeologists were included in the team when excavations got fully under way in 1965. But an exciting, internationally significant archaeological excavation on the Soviet border initiated by the King had its own symbolism. When Zahir Shah ousted Daoud shortly after, the new policies involved, among other things, a turn away from Daoud’s reliance on the Soviets, an opening up to the outside world, an emphasis on cultural openness and education. Internally and externally, it seems to me, the processes that Zahir Shah kicked off by his audience with Daniel Schlumberger answered to those aims rather precisely.
Well, maybe, maybe not. But I’d like to believe there was more to Zahir Shah’s hunting trip than meets the eye.
A few things last week set me thinking again about this question. The main one was a Twitter conversation with Mary Munnik in which it came home to me, for far from the first time, how utterly opaque Afghan politics are to me, ancient, medieval and modern. That should be borne in mind when assessing my musings above: I really and honestly don’t have a clue, but I can’t help but find it all thoroughly fascinating.
I’ve read or re-read some interesting stuff on DAFA, Zahir Shah, and Ai Khanum in the last few days:
Tamim Ansary, Games without Rules (2012);
Paul Bernard, ‘Aï Khanoum “La Barbare”‘ & ‘La découverte du site grec et de la plaine d’Aï Khanoum par John Wood’, in Paul Bernard & Henri-Paul Francfort, Études de géographie historique sur la plaine d’Aï Khanoum (Afghanistan) (1978), 17-23 and 33-8;
Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language, and Identity in Greek Central Asia (2014);
Françoise Olivier-Utard, Politique et Histoire: Histoire de la Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (1922-1982) (1997);
Marguerite Reut, Qataghan et Badakhshan, par Mawlawi Borhan al-Din Koshkaki Khan (1979);
Zamariallai Tarzi, ‘Jules Barthoux : le découvreur oublié d’Aï Khanoum’, CRAI 140 (1996), 595-611.
The chapel in Brasenose College, Oxford, like any college chapel, is festooned with memorials: principals, senior fellows like Walter Pater, and on the southern wall of the ante-chapel, a handful of former students. The first few are Indian Civil Service, and the very first one attempts to capture life and death in a modern colonial bureaucracy in Latin: the ICS becomes CIVILE MUNUS APUD INDOS. Thereafter they stick to English, no doubt wisely, but one of them is for my money the most remarkable, thought-provoking epitaph in the whole building, possibly in Oxford. It’s a plain sheet of brass, as restrained in its language as its form:
What the viewer realises with a start, of course, is that the country for which Justus Carl von Ruperti fought and died was not this country but Germany. The presence of a memorial to an enemy combatant in an Oxford chapel is arresting enough; the fact that it was first proposed in 1950, as it turns out, is something I find stunning. All in all, even though Richard Davenport-Hines gets the details a bit wrong (Ruperti’s memorial is separate from the main World War II memorial), he’s right that it “is heart-stopping to anyone who sees it.”
What follows are the fruits of some research on Ruperti’s plaque, all driven by my fascination for a memorial to a German soldier erected within a very few years of the War. I’ve found some information in the records of Governing Body meetings in Brasenose, although they record the very minimum, and Justus Carl’s nephew, Lippold von Klencke, has been incredibly generous with information from family documents. Ruperti’s student file, though again extremely spare by today’s standards, had some interesting details. But I’m sure there’s more to know, so please don’t hold back if you can help. For example, I find not a hint of controversy surrounding the decision to commemorate Ruperti, and that surprises me. There are a few memorials to German war dead around Oxford (Oxford had had many German students), but they’re not a subject that’s much talked or written about. At New College there’s a separate memorial for World War I, but none for World War II. At Merton College two names of German dead were added to the World War I memorial in 1994. At Balliol College I know that the inclusion of five German names from World War II, only one of them a combatant, provoked objections from old members when it was proposed in 1947. When Konrad Adenauer, the German Chancellor, toured Oxford in 1951, visiting the memorial in Balliol that carried his nephew’s name, there were protests at Oriel College which forced him to change his itinerary. At Brasenose, there is very little information at all.
Justus Carl von Ruperti, always Juscar to friends and family, was a Prussian aristocrat, his father Max von Ruperti a high administrator, Regierungspräsident of Allenstein, one of the three administrative regions of East Prussia: the regional capital, Allenstein, is now the Polish city of Olsztyn. Within Ruperti senior’s jurisdiction, to the south of the city of Allenstein, stood the Tannenberg Memorial, which commemorated an overwhelming German victory over Russia in 1914 by evocation of the medieval Teutonic Knights, folkloric champions of Christianity and defenders of the eastern frontiers of Germany. Tannenberg was a potent expression of German national identity.
I mention the Memorial because it gives a sense of the times, and because in 1932 it was the catalyst for conflict between Max von Ruperti and the NSDAP, the Nazi Party. Hitler, characteristically, saw Tannenberg as an opportunity to promote his own political agenda, but Ruperti refused to allow a Nazi rally to be held at the site, on the grounds that it contravened the essentially non-partisan nature of the Memorial. When Hitler came to power after the elections in March 1933, Ruperti was summarily sacked as a consequence.
What I’ve been trying to do in the last few weeks is understand the motivations of Juscar von Ruperti, who after all died fighting in Hitler’s war, and understand the thinking of the Brasenose fellows who decided to commemorate him. One thing that helped me understand was one of the first things I discovered, which was that the moving force behind Juscar’s memorial was Barry Nicholas, a Law Fellow and later the Principal of Brasenose, who had himself served in World War II. I knew Nicholas myself very much in passing, but found myself studying his life in some detail a few years back when I had the nerve-wracking job of composing a Latin memorial for him after he died in 2002. It now hangs on the wall just a few feet from Juscar’s. What I discovered about Nicholas is what Harry Judge describes in this obituary: he was a remarkable man, principled, humane and profoundly wise, someone I would trust implicitly to be right about something like this.
But back to Tannenberg. The memorial is now totally obliterated. This blog tells the story of the aftermath of its abandonment in the face of the Soviet advance in 1945. But while it existed it was an unapologetically nationalistic monument, and when we, in 2015, look at images of its severe, völkisch architecture, we struggle to dissociate what we see from expressions of Nazi ideology. But the Memorial was conceived and built well before the Nazis took power, even though later appropriated and redesigned by them, and Max von Ruperti combined patriotism with courageous and principled opposition to the NSDAP.
In 1931 the Canadian Kathleen Coburn stayed with the von Ruperti family in Allenstein. She found them open-minded, opposed to militarism, and motivated by a strong social conscience. Coburn accompanied Frau von Ruperti, Juscar’s mother, to see the welfare initiatives that she patronised in Allenstein, impressive efforts to counter the impact of the Depression. What is striking, though, is that this social work took place in an overtly patriotic framework. An institute visited by Coburn provided education for “girls from lower-class farm families”. They were trained in practical skills such as handicrafts, but also introduced to folk music and culture, and central to the whole exercise was discussion of German politics and the cultivation of a “national” culture. There was no belittling of non-German cultures, Coburn noted, but there was a notion of social development which saw it as an essential part of the creation of a better and stronger Germany. East Prussia, at the eastern edge of German territory, was a place where German identity was especially vulnerable. But the combination of patriotism and high principle is a thread that runs through other accounts of the period: for example, the portrait of Adam von Trott, executed in 1944 for his role in the Bomb Plot against Hitler (his name is on the memorial at Balliol), in the biography by Giles MacDonogh. This is not to say that Hitler wasn’t also motivated by nationalism, of course, just that German nationalism and National Socialism were not, despite Hitler’s best efforts, straightforwardly interchangeable. At any rate, what Coburn witnessed happening under the aegis of the Vaterländische Frauenverein, the Patriotic Women’s Association, suggests the environment in which Juscar spent his childhood. (I found the account of Coburn’s visit in C. Morgan, ‘A Happy Holiday’: English Canadians and Transatlantic Tourism, 1870-1930 (Toronto), 356-8.)
Juscar was born in 1914, and at the time of his father’s enforced retirement in 1933 was 18 years old, a student in Law with History and Economics at Munich University, having done a first term at Königsberg (it was standard practice to move between universities within one degree). In the same year he won the Rhodes Scholarship that brought him to Brasenose College, where he stayed for two years (earning himself a diploma in Economics and Political Science) from October 1933 to June 1935 before returning to Germany with the intention of finishing his law degree at Göttingen, where his parents now lived.
In actual fact he was obliged to serve with the army for the two years after his return to Germany, and only resumed his degree in October 1937. He remained a student until 1941, when he submitted a research dissertation. At Brasenose he was highly regarded, bright, engaged and (important for a Rhodes Scholar) a team player, rowing in the Brasenose 1st VIII. He and his contemporary Fritz Caspari, a determined opponent of the Nazi regime who left Germany in 1939, set up a scheme for non-German Rhodes Scholars to visit Germany. It was normal for German Rhodes Scholars to spend two rather than the standard three years at Oxford, but Ruperti left open the possibility of returning at a later stage for a third year. In the event, by the time he finished his law degree in Germany, war had broken out between the two countries, something the Rhodes Scholarship had been expressly designed to prevent.
In letters back to the Principal of Brasenose, William Stallybrass, excerpts of which were published in the college magazine at the time, Juscar describes military life, and offers his perspective on developments later in the 1930s. In 1936 he reads The Times of London while acting as an instructor of new recruits; in 1937, in a snowstorm in Lüneburg, he reminisces about rowing at Oxford; in 1938 he admits to a grudging fondness for military life, adding that the army “is one of the few institutions in this country, which are not so intensely affected by politics as most things are.” In June 1939 Stallybrass ends the “Principal’s Scrapbook” with a message from Juscar on “how genuine a wish for peace there was in Germany” (“This is a good note on which to end,” wrote the Principal). In 1941, under the heading “OUR GERMANS” he records that “J.C. von Ruperti (1933) has sent a message via America that he is well and at Göttingen writing a thesis.” At the time of his application for a Rhodes scholarship he was said to be aiming to join the Diplomatic Service. But he was soon back in the army, and in August 1943 was killed in Russia, in the aftermath of the decisive Battle of Kursk.
Photos of Juscar from his 1933 application to Brasenose
Back in 1938 Juscar had written to Stallybrass about the Anschluss of March 1938. It is the most challenging thing I’ve read related to Juscar, but it tells me again how well Hitler played the nationalistic consensus within Germany in the 1930s:
“As regards politics, I feel like sitting in a big bus, with perhaps a map, to ascertain from time to time where I am, but with not the least chance of influencing the course which the driver takes. I can’t say that I disagree with the driver’s choice of places where to get, and sometimes he even seems to take the right approach… Our bus, by the way, has been going at 100 m.p.h. again for some days in March; and again, as so often before, all the passengers were genuinely delighted to get where she took them. There was indeed general approval of the Anschluss and admiration for its speedy perfection, also among some parts of the intelligentsia as stand somewhat apart on many other occasions; since they, more perhaps than others, have a feeling for the historic importance of the development. Moreover, in this union of the Greater Reich a number of imponderables come into play, which is hard to explain, although their effects cannot be denied.
Please remember me to everyone in College. Oxford, I am sure, is as peaceful and pleasant as ever. May it continue like that for ever.”
Adam von Trott responded similarly to the Anschluss. MacDonogh comments that “it took a while before Trott was able to appreciate fully what had happened on 11 March, and to differentiate between a legitimate alteration of what he believed to be an unjust treaty [i.e. Versailles], and a step towards world domination on the part of a criminal adventurer” (p.114).
In the Brasenose archives, thanks to Georgie Edwards our archivist, I got to read the Vice-Principal’s Register (the minutes of the College Governing Body) and trace the process of approving and realising the plaque for Ruperti. When the process started, basic information was lacking. An initial proposal was made in June 1950, and approved by the college “if Mr Nicholas could find out whether [J.C. von Ruperti] was in fact killed during the war.” There is then silence for three years, by which time Juscar’s death, and date of death, had evidently been properly established. In September 1953 an approach was made to the renowned engraver Leslie Durbin, best known for a ceremonial sword presented to Stalin in 1943, but Durbin proved too expensive. The plaque, engraved in the event by Messrs William Pickford for £20, was finally affixed in 1954. On July 29, 1955 the Principal (by now Hugh Last) shared a message with the Governing Body from the Chairman of the Association of German Rhodes Scholars: “At their Annual Meeting held last month in Francfort, the association of German Rhodes Scholars, on being informed that a memorial to Justus v. Ruperti had been put up in the chapel of B.N.C., passed a vote of thanks for this chivalrous and noble act.” The German Rhodes scholarships were in fact suspended until 1969, as they had been after World War I until 1929. One of the first scholars after the suspension was lifted in 1969 was Juscar’s nephew, Lippold von Klencke.
There is a great deal that this record doesn’t say, especially about Barry Nicholas’ motivations for proposing this memorial, and the reactions of other members of the Governing Body. Perhaps there were none, but if so, why not? I can only assume that even in 1950 Nicholas had clear evidence that Ruperti was no Nazi sympathiser, and was, on the contrary, a man of liberal political opinions. Nicholas had also been a Brasenose student in the 1930s, and although he didn’t coincide with Ruperti, they must have had acquaintances in common. For me my confidence on this point came from a document that Juscar’s nephew Mr von Klencke was kind enough to show me, an entry from Juscar’s diary dated August 9, 1943, just a few days before his death.
It is a remarkable, and poignant, insight into his thinking. He describes the desperate situation he and his men found themselves in after the Soviet victory at Kursk, in headlong retreat, on the front line, and without air support. They were doomed, and knew it. In these circumstances Ruperti candidly shares with his diary his thoughts on Germany’s future, and then describes a friendly dispute about politics between himself and a fellow Oberleutnant from Hamburg, Grießbauer, the man who would communicate news of Juscar’s death to his family, and die himself soon after. There is patriotism in their conversation: they are both intensely concerned about what will happen to Germany. There is not a hint of Nazi ideology. Juscar writes of Germany’s need to find its way back from pride and arrogance to an awareness of human limitations, to value over and above the national interest the worth of humanity in general. “Germany must be strong and remain so, but internally just and just in its relations with neighbours and other countries, not guided by dogma but by concern for decency, human dignity, and mutual assistance.” “The value and freedom of the individual, though bound by Law and Justice, Morality and finally God, must be reestablished.”
I return again to that laconic phrase on the memorial, “Fighting for his country,” a simple (but heart-stopping) assertion of Juscar’s lack of ideology, his common humanity with the enemy that was commemorating him. In the first paragraph of the diary entry that patriotism, which I think is key to the story of Justus Carl von Ruperti (and which I think Barry Nicholas also thought was key), finds a different expression, as Ruperti talks about his responsibilities to his men (he was the commander of a “Schwadron” or company), and his attempts to give them the Germany they were very unlikely ever to see again:
“What depresses me most these days is that you cannot explain yourself to the men, cannot say to them how you really think… I ought to be totally frank with them even in these circumstances, but it can’t be done. It is too dangerous… All that’s left, then, is to try to understand them in human terms, to make this time easier for them, and to let them find a home (Heimat) in the comradeship of discipline and rules.”
In the words of Principal Stallybrass, this is a good note on which to end.
A hardcore Latin-grammar blog, this one, leavened with some Jacobites. You have been warned.
Stephen Bernard, author of this excellent publication, is now producing an edition of the surviving letters of the poet John Dryden (1631-1700), and he’s asked me to help him make sense of what is known as Letter 7, a letter (now in the Beinecke Library at Yale University) written by Dryden to an unidentified correspondent. Latin grammar is my job, and Jacobites one of my longterm fascinations, and since one certainly and the other possibly feature in the story of this letter, I was hooked.
The subject of the letter is the celebrated translation of Lucretius’ masterpiece of philosophical poetry De Rerum Natura by Thomas Creech (1659-1700), first published in 1682, and specifically Creech’s version of lines 225-6 of the first book of the DRN. (At this point Lucretius is making his initial argument for atomism, that all matter consists fundamentally of tiny, indestructible particles.) It seems that someone had questioned whether Creech’s lines made any grammatical sense, and someone else had defended Creech; at which point Dryden was asked to adjudicate. In the letter he presents a series of arguments to the effect that Creech’s couplet could be nudged into making sense. Then, rather more convincingly, Dryden turns to the original text of Lucretius, translates it himself, and explains how Creech had misrepresented, if not positively misconstrued, the original Latin. For me the letter raises interesting questions about Dryden’s Latin, since his discussion of grammatical points seems more than a bit dubious. It’s always possible I’m failing to understand his point, though, and that should be borne in mind.
Here’s the letter in full:
“The two verses concerning which the dispute is raisd, are these;
Besides, if o’re whatever yeares prevaile
Shou’d wholly perish, & its matter faile,
The question ariseing from them is whether any true grammaticall construction, can be made of them? The objection is, that there is no nominative case appearing, to the word, Perish: or that can be understood to belong to it. I have considerd the verses, & find the Author of them to have notoriously bungled: that he has plac’d the words as confus’dly, as if he had studied to do so. This notwithstanding, the very words without adding or diminishing, in theire proper sence, (or at least what the author meanes[)], may run thus.– Besides, if whatever yeares prevaile over, shou’d wholly perish, & its matter faile,–
I pronounce therefore as impartially as I can upon the whole, that there is a Nominative case; and that figurative, so as Terence & Virgil amongst others use it. That is; The whole clause precedent is the nominative case to perish. My reason is this; & I thinke it obvious; let the question be asked, what it is that shoud wholly perish? or that perishes? The answer will be, that which yeares prevaile over. If you will not admit a clause to be in construction a nominative case; the word (thing) illud, or quodcunque, is to be understood; either of which words, in the femi[ni]ne gender, agree with (res) so that he meanes, whatever thing time prevailes over shou’d wholly perish & its matter faile.
Lucretius his Latine runs thus:
Praetereà, quae cunque vetustate amovet aetas,
Si penitus perimit, consumens materiem omnem,
Unde Animale genus, generatim in lumina vitae
Redducit Venus? &c.*
which ought to have been translated thus:
Besides, what ever time removes from view,
If he destroys the stock of matter too,
From whence can kindly propagation spring
Of every creature, & of every thing?
I translated it (whatever) purposely; to show that (thing) is to be understood; which as the words are here plac’d is so very perspicuous, that the Nominative case cannot be doubted.
The word, perish, usd by Mr Creech is a verb neuter; where Lucretius puts (perimit) which is active: a licence, which in translating a philosophicall Poet, ought not to be taken, for some reasons, which I have not room to give. But, to comfort the looser, I am apt to believe, that the cross-graind, confusd verse put him so much out of patience, that he wou’d not suspect it of any sense.
The company having done me so great an honour, as to make me their judge, I desire from you the favour, of presenting my acknowledgments to them; & should be proud to heare from you, whether they rest satisfied in my opinion, who am, Sir Your Most Humble Servant
The problem that “the company” have identified with Creech’s lines is that there doesn’t appear to be any subject (the “Nominative case”, as Dryden describes it) for the verb “should perish”: it’s unclear what “shou’d wholly perish”, in other words. Dryden starts by acknowledging that Creech’s expression is poor, but then argues that if the words are less “confus’dly” organised (rearranged as “Besides, if whatever yeares prevaile over, should wholly perish, and its matter faile”), the construction makes sense and is also grammatical. In the next paragraph he expresses what seems to be the same point in more grammatical terms. The whole clause “Whatever years prevail over” is the subject of perish, he proposes, or else (an alternative version of the same idea) a word or phrase is unspoken but understood which stands for the previous clause and acts as the subject of the verb.
It’s actually quite hard to reconstruct Dryden’s thinking in this third paragraph, and part of the problem, I suspect, is that his mind is starting to wander from Creech’s translation to Lucretius’ original, which he goes on to quote and translate in the following paragraph. What makes me suspect this is that Dryden is making arguments he doesn’t need to make if his only aim is to rescue the grammatical status of Creech’s English (“whatever yeares prevaile over, should wholly perish, and its matter faile” makes perfect sense), but which he does need to make if he wants to establish that Creech’s English bears some relation to the grammar and meaning of Lucretius’ Latin. The fundamental problem there is that “whatever” in the Latin is quaecumque, which is a plural form (“whatever things”), and thus cannot be coordinated with the verb perimit, “perishes/should perish” (in Creech’s translation, but see below), because that is a singular form. Hence, I think, Dryden is tying himself into knots making “whatever years prevail over” a (singular) clause that is the subject of “should perish”, and then suggesting that, rather than treating the whole clause as a (singular) subject, one might understand a word/phrase like illud or illa res, “that thing”, recapitulating the preceding clause and acting as the subject of perimit. Quodcumque couldn’t work the same way as illud in such a construction anyhow, but Dryden seems to want to introduce quaecumque res, “whatever thing”, as if it might explain Lucretius’s quaecumque, or maybe Creech’s rendering of quaecumque. I’m struggling here, I admit, but I’m struggling because I can’t really make sense of Dryden’s grammatical argument, and I find myself wondering, heresy though it may be, that Dryden himself is struggling, too. None of the arguments he advances in this third paragraph can convince me that Dryden’s formal understanding of Latin grammar wasn’t, on this evidence, rather wobbly. There’s every chance I’m missing something, however, so please tell me if you think so.
In that paragraph Dryden may be heading for a γ=, but he’s on much safer ground in the next paragraph when he abandons Creech’s translation and offers his own. The major difference between his own translation and Creech’s is that, despite the fact that Creech was an Oxford academic, Dryden renders the Latin much more faithfully. As he explains in the penultimate paragraph, Creech took perimit to be an intransitive verb, a verb that has no object (this is what Dryden means by “neuter”, neither active or passive): “perish.” But perimit is in fact an active verb, “destroys”, and although Dryden politely treats Creech’s translation as a “licence” rather than an error, we may have our suspicions. In Dryden’s version (and I think this is the point of the prepenultimate paragraph, I translated it … cannot be doubted), the elusive subject of perimit is quite clear, if interestingly gendered: “he” in the second line is “time”. That, I think, is fine, but I’m still bothered by what seems to me a grammatical dog’s breakfast in the third paragraph.
Let’s just step back and wonder what occasioned the request to Dryden to adjudicate this dispute. Stephen Bernard thinks the letter may be to Anthony Stephens, an Oxford bookseller who published Creech’s translation of Lucretius, pointing out that Creech’s translation of this couplet changes between the first and third editions of this (phenomenally successful) publication in 1682: as if Stephens has consulted Dryden about Creech’s version, and then Creech had adapted his translation in response. Stephen knows everything about this period of English publishing history and is much more likely to be right (since I know absolutely nothing), but what makes me a bit sceptical is that although Creech’s translation changes, it doesn’t change in a way, I think, that someone who has read Dryden’s critique would change it. The new version is, “If all things over which long years prevail,/ Did wholly perish, and their matter fail,” which makes explicit the plural form in the Latin which may or may not have been bothering Dryden, but it continues to use the “neutral” verb “perish”, “a licence, which in translating a philosophicall Poet, ought not to be taken,” as Dryden had bluntly stated.
I’m not sure how strong a counter-argument that is, but another reason to wonder about a connection to Anthony Stephens is what for me is the most exciting thing about this letter, another letter that survived alongside it, dating to May 7, 1811, and written by Edmond Malone, apparently to the husband of a Mrs Smith who owned the Dryden letter as part of her “collection of autographs”: Malone had borrowed the letter, and in return supplemented Mrs Smith’s collection with one of Alexander Pope’s receipts for his “translation of Homer”, although he expresses regret that he couldn’t find any example of Shakespeare’s handwriting for her. (In this respect Malone and Mrs Smith were kindred spirits: Malone’s enthusiasm for autographs was such that he even cut out examples from historical manuscripts.) What Malone’s letter also does, however, is describe his conclusions about the addressee of Dryden’s letter.
From what he had heard from the Smiths about where the letter originated, Malone has been able to “ascertain, almost without a chance of error”, that Dryden had addressed his letter to Edward Radcliffe (though Malone calls him Francis), later the second Earl of Derwentwater, a person from whom Dryden might reasonably have hoped for support and patronage. Radcliffe was an interesting figure, a Catholic and a Jacobite; indeed one of his sons, James, was executed after the Jacobite rising of 1715, and another, Charles, after the 1745 Rebellion. Edward himself married an illegitimate daughter of James II, Mary Tudor, and all of this placed the Radcliffes very close to the royal family displaced by the Revolution of 1688: the letter is perhaps most likely to date to the family’s period of greatest influence during the reign of James II (1685-8), around which time Dryden also converted to Catholicism. The key evidence on which Malone bases this identification is the provenance of the letter. The seat of the Radcliffes was at Dilston Hall in Northumberland, and Malone informs us that it was at Dilston, “in a box containing papers of the Derwentwater family” (or possibly he means, in a box containing papers of the Derwentwater family from Dilston, but the difference is not significant), that the letter had been found.
Now Malone doesn’t help things by confusing Edward Radcliffe’s name with that of his father Francis, but if the detail about the box at Dilston is to be believed, it’s strong evidence of a connection with one of the Radcliffes, at least. What strengthens the case is the identity of our informant, Edmond Malone. I’m still only part way through Peter Martin’s biography of Malone, but the LRB review nicely summarises the achievements of this trailblazing literary biographer: “In the hands of this apparently diffident Irishman, the practice of literary history changed for ever: as far as the privileging of meticulous textual scholarship and painstaking archival research is concerned, Malone wrote the book.” Malone’s long hours in the archives ultimately ruined his eyesight, but he was instrumental in exposing the Chatterton forgeries, for example, and was the the first to establish a working chronology of the works of Shakespeare. Malone’s commitment to factual accuracy could even be felt to be excessive. Peter Martin describes his Life ofDryden, which introduced his edition of Dryden’s prose works (1800), as “the most thoroughly researched literary biography written up to that time” (p. 232), and he was satirised for a meticulousness of detail that tended to swamp his narrative. “The Life of A,” wrote George Hardinge in his parody The Essence ofMalone (1800), “should be the lives of B, C, D, &c. to the end of the alphabet.” But if it made for turgid reading, Malone’s determined recovery of the facts of Dryden’s (and Shakespeare’s) lives has ensured his status as a pioneer of scholarly method. If Malone says “with certainty” that the letter is addressed to Radcliffe, it’s a view worth considering.
Well, what I think this letter is about is a wager among upper-class men close to the Court. A dispute about a couple of lines from Creech’s famous translation arises, and it is proposed to resolve it by asking the Poet Laureate John Dryden to adjudicate: hence Dryden’s reference to a “looser” (of the wager) in the penultimate paragraph; and to his own impartiality in that difficult third paragraph; “company” in the final paragraph simply means the gathering of people present when the wager was struck and (presumably) the letter to Dryden was written.
That’s my theory, but let’s end by returning to the key question that this letter poses for a Classicist: was Dryden’s Latin a bit iffy? Since my whole being revolts at the thought, here is my final stab at an explanation, with thanks to Paul Davis for encouraging me to think less about the accuracy of what Dryden says in such private writing, and more about how he wanted to present himself. It’s a natural surmise that it was Radcliffe who believed that Creech’s couplet made sense and another member of the company (the loser referred to in the third person) who doubted it. Radcliffe was an important man, and Dryden had no wish to upset him, and hence the awkwardness of the letter, as Dryden tries everything he can to justify adjudicating that Creech’s inaccurate and internally nonsensical couplet does indeed make sense, as Radcliffe had wagered. From his familiarity with Dryden’s handwriting, Stephen could tell me that Dryden’s hand in this letter is unusually careful (such a wonderful observation to be able to make after the lapse of three hundred years!). Perhaps he is trying to impress the recipient of the letter; perhaps that is wild speculation. But it is surely true that “the looser” in this wager was robbed blind: Creech’s couplet was a stinker in all kinds of ways, but even on its own terms MAKES NO SENSE. Dryden’s adjudication was a travesty.
But maybe Dryden’s focus was less on grammar and more on forging or maintaining a potentially very fruitful relationship.
“Besides, whatever things time by lapse of years removes,
If it utterly destroys them, consuming all their material,
From whence is the race of animals, class by class,
restored by Venus to the light of life?”
A full-scale dog-blog was always on the cards. I came quite close in this one, when a figure in a photo I’d been shown turned out to be a pioneer of Afghan Hound breeding. But this blog is devoted to a single dog, a fox terrier called Dash who belonged to the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein.
Actually Stein owned seven dogs in succession, and every one of them was called Dash. The name was more common at one time than it seems to be now: Queen Victoria’s Dash was a King Charles spaniel. It still seems slightly odd to give every one of a sequence of dogs the very same name, and Stein, whose claim to fame is above all as an investigator of the Buddhist cultures of Central Asia, sometimes toyed with the idea that the latest Dash was a reincarnation of one of its predecessors.
Anyhow, the subject of this blog is Dash II, or “Dash the Great” as Stein liked to refer to his very favourite of them all; he also called him Kardash Beg, “The Honourable Snow Companion”, when he discovered with delight that his new dog had a relish for snow. Pets belonging to Aurel Stein could expect to encounter some pretty gruelling climatic conditions.
Stein acquired Dash the Great in 1904, and the dog accompanied him on his Second Expedition into Central Asia from 1906 to 1908, Stein’s most audacious, most successful, and ultimately most controversial venture into Chinese Turkestan. It was during this expedition that Stein was able to investigate a trove of Buddhist material in the Mogao caves at Dunhuang, removing a large quantity of texts, textiles and paintings. But earlier in the expedition he and his team had made the high-altitude crossing from the very northeastern tip of Afghanistan into Chinese Central Asia, and later he undertook a perilous, and very nearly disastrous, crossing of the Taklamakan desert.
Dash is a regular presence in Stein’s accounts of his expedition, especially the popular Ruins of Desert Cathay (1912), often most visible in moments of particular intensity. As things become very desperate during Stein’s crossing of the Taklamakan desert, his men threatening to mutiny, he is grateful that Dash makes do on “a saucerful [of water] spared from my cup of tea”. As they scale the 16,000-foot Wakhjir pass between Afghanistan and China, the generally irrepressible terrier whimpers with the cold and insists on sheltering beneath Stein’s fur coat. On another occasion he’s roused from sleep in Stein’s tent by the excitement of Stein and Chiang-Ssu-yeh, Stein’s “Chinese secretary and helpmate”, when they find proof that the frontier fortifications they’re investigating date from as early as the first century AD.
Dash chases marmots in the high country, “distinctly provoking for so indefatigable a hunter”, develops a knack of mounting a horse, “jumping up to the stirrup, and thence to the pommel of whoever was offering him a lift”, and gets badly mauled by a pack of semi-feral sheepdogs. When the party finds itself having to cross the Kash river over a ridiculously makeshift bridge, the poor thing is trussed up in a bag and passed along a wire rope along with the rest of the baggage.
The expedition took its toll on Stein. As he crossed back into India in 1908 he suffered frostbite while surveying at high altitude, losing several toes of his right foot after being carried down in agony to Ladakh. When he was eventually fit enough to travel, he describes his departure for Britain at the end of 1908 and enforced separation from Dash, “the last of my faithful travel companions, but, perhaps, the nearest to my heart”: dogs were not allowed on the P. & O. Mail boat. Dash made his own way to Britain on a separate steamer, spent four months in quarantine, and “was joyfully restored to his master under Mr P. S. Allen’s hospitable roof at Oxford.”
P. S. Allen was a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and he and his wife Helen were scholars of Erasmus and two of Stein’s oldest and closest friends; their “hospitable roof” was 23 Merton St., where Stein always stayed on his visits to Britain, and where Dash would actually spend the rest of his life. Stein seems to have decided that his “inseparable little companion” had had enough adventure. At any rate, when he returned to India he left Dash behind with the Allens. The comfortable new home of this canine veteran of the sand and snow deserts of the Taklamakan and Pamir Knot is now part of the Eastgate Hotel.
Dash lived with the Allens for another nine years, and while Merton St. was his home, he was clearly left to wander wherever he liked across Oxford. But as the First World War drew to a close, a new and deadly threat to an increasingly decrepit old dog was being introduced to Oxford’s streets, the motorised Omnibus. Percy Allen wrote to Stein to explain what happened:
He took himself out for a walk one aft. Friday, 27 Sept. , & was run over by a motor bus in Park End St—the street which goes down to the station as the continuation of the High & Queen St. The police brought around his collar next morning, & reported that he had been killed instantaneously, & that they had buried him in their usual place. Helen went to the police station to enquire, as soon as we returned home—10 days later—but by that time it was too late to unearth him & bring him to sleep in the garden where he has so often slept before.
It’s a terribly banal end for a dog who’d seen so much, run over by a bus on Park End St. (Although I’ve subsequently walked the distance from 23 Merton St to Park End St, and Dash clearly hadn’t lost his wanderlust.) Soon the regular letters between Stein and the Allens turned back to the urgent issues of the day, the Armistice just a month or so after Dash’s death, and the Spanish Flu. But for as long as Dash is the focus of these letters between old friends, he provokes a touching outpouring of affection between them. Helen Allen reminisced to Stein about Dash’s life in Oxford:
He has been as outstanding amongst dogs, as his master amongst men; such sagacity & such devotion. I can see him in so many different poses: returning on a Cotswold walk after a chase after a hare, to look which way we were gone meanwhile, locating us & then heading straight for our slow plodding figures; looking up full of enquiry when he heard: “Go and meet him, Dash,” & then bounding forward joyously as he caught sight of Percy…
Such faithfulness as he has shown must surely meet a fit reward.
And we send you many thanks for the added happiness you brought into our lives through Dash.
“Surely a Ulysses among dogs,” wrote Percy Allen to Stein:
full of wise counsel & dignity, & greatly attached to his friends. You brought great pleasure into our lives thro’ him: for wh. we thank you, amice noster, as for so much else. Blessings on Dash the Great.
Stein, in response, thanked his friends for their comforting words:
Never before, I feel sure, had a faithful canine companion’s departure been recorded in words more true and deserved. How grateful I feel to [Helen] for having thus softened the pang which this sad news caused me the enclosed letter for her cannot express adequately. I do not command the inexhaustible goodness of soul which is life’s greatest boon in you both, nor that grace of expressive brief words which mature and constant communion with Erasmus have bestowed upon you both. I never cease to give thanks for all the brightness which you two have brought into my existence for the last twenty years—but my gratitude must be equally great for all you have done to help me in facing sad losses and trials.
Well, we all know dogs can be surrogate objects of affection for people who find it difficult to express emotion. Why else are English people so fond of them? In happier times, too, “Dash” had been a vehicle for the Allens’ affectionate pride in their friend’s success, writing a letter to congratulate Stein on the knighthood he received in 1912:
23 Merton St
Bara din 1912
Many congratulations, dear Master. Am wearing my collar of achievement.
If I had known this was coming, I should not have cried on the Wakhjir.
Whip the young one, and keep him in order.
(Have assumed this title) SIR DASH, K.C.I.E.
Still, just a dog.
I blogged a while back on the lingering mystique of an Indian ruler who died in 1799 yet has refused to be forgotten. Tipu Sultan achieved that posthumous celebrity above all by developing a uniquely powerful symbolic language to promote his regime, its lasting impact reflected both in the initial rush to secure from Tipu’s capital Seringapatam some of his possessions after its sack by the East India Company–and in the intense interest that the art of Tipu’s Mysore continues to provoke, whether in museums or in auction houses, on the rare occasions pieces of his throne or examples of his weaponry come onto the market.
Well, yesterday a stunning collection of Tipu material was auctioned at Bonhams in London, and the day before, en route to Defining Beauty at the BM, I popped in to have a look. For me, as for Bonhams in their literature, the stand-out item was this musket. What follows will make a lot more sense if you study Bonhams’ photos of it (and Bonhams’ description is much fuller than mine here). To get a sense of how such a musket worked, this is a useful short video.
In 1793/4, when the musket was manufactured in Seringapatam, it was a cutting-edge piece of hardware, but it’s also an incredibly elaborate piece of visual propaganda. I am no kind of expert in firearms, and not much of a fan either, but what I can’t help finding fascinating are the methods used by rulers, and especially rulers whose legitimacy is insecure or in some way seriously disputed, to maintain their authority. That might in their various ways include Kim Il Sung, Elizabeth I or Domitian, and the British in India or Greeks in Bactria, all of them compensating for their insecurity with aggressive self-assertion. It certainly includes Tipu, whose father Haydar Ali had supplanted the longstanding Hindu dynasty that had ruled Mysore.
This being Tipu’s gun, the decoration has a dominant tiger theme. Most obviously, the butt of the musket is carved into the form of a crouching tiger (its stripes inlaid with silver) reminiscent of the famous clockwork Tipu’s Tiger, now in the V&A. But the lock and cocking mechanism are also in the shape of a tiger, and the steel barrel has the same stylized babri or tiger-stripe decoration (again inlaid with silver) all along its length. Tiny silver tigers function both as the safety catch and the foresight.
Tipu’s tigers were richly symbolic, expressive of India and royalty, but also carrying a strong religious force. The tiger had deep roots in non-Islamic India (Tipu’s subjects were overwhelmingly non-Muslim) as a figure of sacred power (cf. K. Brittlebank, Modern Asian Studies 29 (1995), 257-69), but it also connects to Tipu’s particular veneration of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Fourth Caliph: asadullah al-ghalib, “the triumphant lion of God,” an epithet of Ali, was a motto much favoured by Tipu, for example formed into the shape of a tiger’s face as at the head of this blog: many of the firearms in the Bonhams sale bore this motif. Ali wielding his sword Zulfiqar, needless to say, made a good patron for a pious warrior like Tipu.
There’s more than just tiger imagery on this musket, a sun motif, too, and a talismanic square bearing the letters of his father Haydar’s name: though as “Haydar” means “lion”, and lions and tigers were pretty interchangeable in Tipu’s symbolic language, even there we haven’t escaped big cats entirely.
The tiger decoration has more precise points of reference, too. On the butt of the musket a silver panel depicts a tiger overcoming the ghandabherunda, a two-headed bird which was the emblem of the Hindu Wodeyar dynasty overturned by Tipu’s father; while on a silver escutcheon at the top of the butt, and also on the underside of the trigger guard and the side plate, tigers maul European soldiers as with the clockwork Tiger. Either opponent, British or Hindu, may be considered the target of a quatrain of Persian poetry inscribed along the barrel: “The peerless musket of the Khusrow of India/ To which the blazing lightning is second/ Can seal the fate of the enemy/ If his forehead become the target.” Tipu will certainly have imagined this text to be more than decorative in effect: he had great belief in magic and the supernatural.
“Liberated” from Seringapatam in 1799, the musket was gifted to Lord Cornwallis, who is best known for losing America but who had had greater success earlier in the British campaigns against Mysore: the gift reflected the debt that East India Company felt to their former commander.
My last blog on Tipu was about the obvious influence Tipu continued to exert on the British celebration of his defeat. Surely the most significant thing about the musket I gazed at for half an hour two days ago is that over two centuries after the death of its owner, and long after the demise of the power that conquered Mysore, it and the other Tipu-related items are still causing a stir in the London art market.
Tipu’s elaborate tufang was estimated before the auction at £100,000-150,000. Its sale price (including the buyer’s premium) was £722,500.
A bit of passion for your subject is no bad thing in a teacher, and I’ve been known to be pretty adamant about the quality of the literature I’m teaching, particularly if it’s Horace or Virgil. But C.S. Lewis took advocacy of the poetry he was teaching to another level again, on the evidence I’m about to present.
Assiduous readers of this blog know that C.S. and I have history: a dubious story about him and the inspiration for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is repeated under my window ad nauseam by tour guides. But a happier connection is Lewis’ enthusiasm for one of my favourite poems, Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, the story (from the Persian poet Ferdowsi, but reinvented by Arnold as a mini Homeric epic) of the single combat between the warriors Rustum and Sohrab: eventually Rustum slays Sohrab, unaware that Sohrab is his son. I knew that Lewis was fond of the poem because in his autobiography Surprised by Joy he described falling under the spell of Arnold’s evocative scene-setting as a twelve-year-old boy: “what enchanted me was the artist in Pekin with his ivory forehead and pale hands, the cypress in the queen’s garden, the backward glance at Rustum’s youth, the pedlars from Khabul, the hushed Chorasmian waste” (p. 53).
The anecdote that follows is new to me, though. It’s from Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings (p. 214), and I owe it to the immensely well-read John Stoker. (I owe the reference to Surprised by Joy to the equally well-read Gail Trimble, I should add.) Carpenter is describing Lewis’ confrontational style of teaching, which divided opinion among his undergraduates (“A few lapped it up, but some very nearly ran away”):
‘If you think that way about Keats you needn’t come here again!’ Lewis once roared down the stairs to a departing pupil. And on another occasion when an Australian student professed that he could never read Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, and refused to admit its good qualities even after Lewis had chanted a hundred lines of it at him, Lewis declared, ‘The sword must settle it!’ and reached for a broadsword and a rapier which (according to J.A.W. Bennett, who was there) were inexplicably in the corner of the room. They fenced – Lewis of course choosing the broadsword – and, said Bennett, ‘Lewis actually drew blood – a slight nick.’
Those were the days. I’ve a shrewd idea what the HR Manager would say today if I tried to settle a disagreement about the power of Horatian word placement with a duel. I do actually inflict Sohrab and Rustum on my own students quite regularly, on the pretext that it’s a nice encapsulation of Greco-Roman epic style, but I try to resist the impulse to reenact the story with authentic weaponry when I do so.
Anyhow, here’s a chunk of Sohrab and Rustum that Lewis loved and I love, Rustum wistfully recalling his youthful affair with Sohrab’s mother, and Arnold capturing nostalgia perfectly. If anyone doesn’t love it, of course, I’m afraid I’ll have to see you outside:
as, at dawn,
The shepherd from his mountain-lodge descries
A far, bright city, smitten by the sun,
Through many rolling clouds—so Rustum saw
His youth; saw Sohrab’s mother, in her bloom;
And that old king, her father, who loved well
His wandering guest, and gave him his fair child
With joy; and all the pleasant life they led,
They three, in that long-distant summer-time—
The castle, and the dewy woods, and hunt
And hound, and morn on those delightful hills
This is as good as a guest post, since absolutely all the research for it has been done by my brother. It’s a short one, too, to make a change, and none too cheery. But it offers just a glimpse of Scots in the British Empire, and that seems timely given recent interest in the relationship of the one to the other.
Henry Maxwell was born in 1826 in Edinburgh. His father, also named Henry, probably died in 1831, at the age of 24; his mother Catherine lived until 1880, dying in a poorhouse in Dundee. In 1846, also in Dundee, the younger Henry married Isabella Ferguson/McIntosh (she was an illegitimate child, a fact that was even recorded on her death certificate; her mother Sarah Ferguson was perhaps 16 years old when she bore her, but may have been closer to 13). Henry and Isabella had a lot of children, two at least of whom died young, and Henry found employment in an industry that dominated Dundee at the time: jute.
Dundee was an established centre for whaling, and it had been discovered that whale oil allowed raw jute, a vegetable fibre imported from India, to be machine-spun into hessian on an industrial scale. For a while, driven by entrepreneurs known as Jute Barons, the industry boomed, and Dundee, “Jutopolis,” along with it. Henry Maxwell rose to be an overseer in a jute mill, and may have achieved the promotion by virtue of being literate: it is most unlikely he ever attended school, but his mother was the daughter of a printer, and thus almost certainly literate herself.
Around 1870, Henry moved to India, to Barnagore (Baranagar) in Bengal, on the Hooghly river just north of Calcutta (Kolkata). His relocation was part of a canny attempt by the Jute Barons to get ahead of the competition by establishing jute factories at source. In due course the jute industry in India would eclipse Dundee’s, but there is apparently machinery still in use in Indian jute mills bearing the legend “Made in Dundee.”
For Henry Maxwell, the poor boy from Edinburgh who was now in all likelihood managing part or all of a jute mill in Bengal, this must have marked a significant upturn in his fortunes. His wife and family, back home in Dundee, had moved to a more salubrious part of the city, a further indication of greater prosperity. But their luck didn’t hold. On August 17th 1872 we find Henry dictating his will in Barnagore, and two days later he’s dead. In Bengal in 1872 it’s a reasonable guess that the cause of death was cholera, but there were plenty of other possibilities. Henry left everything to his wife Isabella, including the sizeable sum of £655 he had saved in India. But back in Scotland Isabella herself was terribly ill: she died of TB in December of the same year.
If the Maxwell family had had a chance of achieving respectability, it was abruptly snuffed out. Henry Maxwell had taken out a life assurance policy and owned stocks and shares, quite the model of the middle-class man. But that all changed after his death. We’ve already heard how Henry’s mother died in a Dundee poorhouse in 1880. There were two poorhouses in Dundee, and Isabella’s mother died in the other one in 1887.
A desperate story, to be sure. But in this story of grinding poverty and (frustrated) social aspirations, the role of India is as a land of opportunity. Whatever impact the jute industry had on native Bengalis, for this Scottish family it almost provided the passport to economic security and social advancement. During the referendum debate the notion was widely bandied about that Scotland had somehow been the passive victim of British, or maybe English, imperialism. In reality Scots exploited the opportunities presented by the empire energetically, and were disproportionately represented among that empire’s functionaries. Henry Maxwell and his Jute Baron employers are a case in point.
As you may have guessed by now, my interest in these people is more than academic: Henry Maxwell was my great-great-grandfather.
Update, 18.04.2015. Henry Maxwell’s great-great-great-grandaughter, my niece, Mhairi Campbell, has located Henry’s grave in the Scottish Cemetery, Kolkata. No inscription survives:
I’m doing what I spend a big chunk of the summer doing: staring at the west wall of St Mary’s, Oxford’s University Church.
That’s the view I get as I sit at the computer, waiting for inspiration to hit me: in the photo above, which predates the age of computers just a little, I’m in the curtained window jutting out above the street. Between me and the church is an alleyway, St Mary’s Passage, running from High St into Radcliffe Square, the heart of Oxford University: you can see one side of the circular Radcliffe Camera, a library, that dominates the square, and the Old Bodleian Library behind it.
Needless to say, I’m ridiculously lucky in where I go to work every morning. But I have been known to grumble about the tourists. Twice or three times a day, and in the summer months closer to fifteen times a day, a tour guide will halt his group under my window and explain how C.S. Lewis was inspired to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by what he saw in the alleyway beneath me: a Victorian lamppost, a couple of fauns carved at the top of the main door to the building, and an image of the Green Man on the same door which bears a passing resemblance to a lion with a mane. Hence, the theory goes, Aslan, Mr Tumnus and the mysterious lamppost Lucy sees when she first stumbles into Narnia.
How true that story is, I really don’t know. To be honest, after listening to several thousand retellings of it by now I’m beyond caring. But that isn’t to say I’m not fascinated by my surroundings as I sit in that window. The building, known as St Mary’s Entry, is old, dating back to around 1600, but we know very little about its history: for a long time up until the 1880’s it was a pub, the City Arms, and it only came into full use by the college in 1919. That’s more or less all we know.
But there are some clues, and the best of them happen to be in my office. According to An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford (1939), it contains a number of features that seem to date to the early seventeenth century.
There is an elaborate Jacobean overmantel:
Two fauns that echo the two around the door downstairs, but are much older: the ones outside seem to be Victorian. Here’s one of the fauns inside:
Most intriguingly of all, there is a design around the door of the room featuring roses in the spandrels at the top:
and at the bottom (the authors of An Inventory missed this), thistles:
I suppose all the recent discussion of Scottish independence has made me pay more attention to the roses and thistles, and I had assumed some connection with the Acts of Union in 1706/7, but when I thought about it (with the Jacobean carvings inside the room in mind, especially), the more obvious link was to James I of England and VI of Scotland, a century before the Act of Union, whose coins carried images rather similar to those around my door. James had wanted a full union of Scotland with England, but the issue was as controversial then as now, and they remained sovereign states under one monarch until the reign of James’ great-granddaughter, Anne.
Well, it’s a good excuse to speculate. And whatever I come up with can’t be any less likely than the spiel of the tourist guides.
Once James was in the frame, and a date for the woodwork (independently reached) of the early seventeenth century, what caught my attention was an event I hadn’t previously been aware of, a visit by the king, accompanied by Queen Anne and his eldest son Henry (and the five-year-old Charles, future Charles I), to Oxford at the end of August 1605, two years after his accession to the English throne.
There was nothing low-key about this visit: all Oxford was galvanized to put on the best possible show of itself. We have three extended accounts of it, Rex Platonicus (Oxford, 1607) by the University Orator Isaac Wake, in Latin, which is too busy hymning the king’s praises to provide much in the way of useful detail, but evidently did Wake’s career no harm: he went on to be knighted, an ambassador in Venice and elsewhere, and M.P. for the University of Oxford. What he has to say about James’ arrival will give you a flavour of the whole work: certe ingresso iam Jacobo sensit Civitas quiddam se amplius capere quam quod murorum suorum angustiis comprehendi posset, “For sure, now James had made his entry, the City felt that it held something greater than the narrow compass of its walls could contain.” Flattery will get you everywhere.
Anthony Nixon’s Oxfords Tryumph (London, 1605), is as relentlessly panegyrical as Wake, but a little more concerned with the nitty-gitty of the visit, even though Nixon is seriously confused about Oxford geography. But the real gem of a source for the visit is a document surviving in a manuscript in Cambridge University Library, an anonymous account by a “spy” from Cambridge, The preparacion at Oxford in August 1605 against the comminge thither of King James, with the Queen and young Prince; together with the things then and there done and the maner thereof. This Cambridge witness may, according to John R. Elliott Jr. in The History of the University of Oxford Vol. IV (p.648, n.32), have been one Henry Mowtlowe; but apparently Cambridge sent as many as forty spies “to view in secret and note the whole event” staged by their arch-rivals. For whatever reason, The preparacion at Oxford… provides the kind of realistic detail Wake and Nixon meticulously avoided: the King falling asleep in a long theatrical performance, and waking up to say, testily, “I marvell what they think me to be!”; or the hundred or so “scholars” sent to prison the day before the king’s arrival for some kind of “uncivill” behaviour (apparently involving inappropriate headwear) in St Mary’s church.
The King arrived at Oxford on Tuesday August 27th 1605, riding south from his ramshackle palace at Woodstock. The officials of the University and City of Oxford rode out to welcome him on the Woodstock Road in what was then countryside a mile north of Oxford, and is now the northern suburbs where I live. In a “fair meadow” near Aristotle’s Well (which now lies under a house on the corner of Kingston Rd and Aristotle Lane, but I think what is these days the intersection between Woodstock Rd and Polstead Rd is meant, very near the childhood home of Lawrence of Arabia) there was a bit of timeless town v. gown needle as the city authorities, led by the Mayor, attempted to upstage the University, and were put firmly in their places. It’s great to see that certain things (town v. gown; Oxford v. Cambridge) haven’t changed much in 400 years, and I’ve been enjoying imagining all the houses away as I walk the dog, picturing the Chancellor, Vice-chancellor, “the Doctors, Proctors and certaine Senior Masters … upon their foote-cloath [caparisoned] Horses, verie richlye furnished to meete the King” (Nixon), the speeches to the King from University (in Latin) and City (in English), and the presentation of gifts (the City’s considerably more valuable than the University’s), before James and his entourage continued their progress towards the city.
Just outside the North Gate, James stopped to be entertained by the first of a series of dramatic performances during his four-day stay in Oxford. James was very keen on academic debate, less so (as we’ve already seen) on the theatre. What’s interesting about this short performance is that it bears some kind of relation to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In front of St John’s College, which stood outside the city walls, three “sibyls” recalled the prophecy given to Banquo that his descendants, the Stuarts, would rule Scotland, and added their own prediction of James’ glorious future. The connection has been made with the three witches’ prediction to Banquo at Macbeth 1.3 (“Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”), and some have even speculated that William Shakespeare might have been in the audience outside St John’s. From there James made his way across the city to Christ Church, where he and the Queen were accommodated: as they rode from north to south of Oxford, according to Nixon, the left side of the street, between Christ Church and St Giles’ church, was lined with academics in precise order of seniority from Doctors of Divinity at the gate of Christ Church to plain old undergraduates up at St Giles’.
Here’s John Speed’s map of Oxford, as it happens dating to around 1605, though much indebted to earlier maps: south is at the top, so James was approaching Oxford from the bottom right. From St Giles’ to Christ Church is about 1,000 metres.
In total, James spent four days in Oxford, from Tuesday August 27th to Friday the 30th. On the last day, after visiting the Bodleian Library, he stopped in at my college, Brasenose, but I don’t think my roses and thistles can have anything to do with that since in 1605 St Mary’s Entry, while owned by Brasenose, was not an integral part of the College proper, and was let out to tenants. A slightly earlier map of this part of Oxford here, by Ralph Agas, illustrates this, “Brasen nose Coll” stopping well short of “Saint Maries”.
But there’s another possibility. James’ and the Queen’s accommodation was at Christ Church, Prince Henry’s at Magdalen College; in the course of his time in Oxford James visited New College, All Souls’ and Magdalen as well as Brasenose, St John’s and the Bodleian Library. But by far the majority of the king’s time was spent in the University Church, St Mary’s, just across the alleyway from here.
On Wednesday and Thurday, August 28 and 29, James attended “disputations” in St Mary’s, Latin speeches delivered in favour or against propositions by academics in five subjects, Theology, Law, Physic (Medicine), Natural Philosophy (roughly, Physics) and Moral Philosophy. The form of the exercise, formal and rhetorically sophisticated speeches in Latin, had its roots in the medieval university, and reflected the importance that continued to be attached to the fluent and persuasive presentation of academic knowledge, but the topics addressed were entirely contemporary. Since we’re in 1605, that still leaves them, for us, interestingly poised between the familiar and the archaic. During the Physic disputation, for example, the question was addressed, An creber suffitus Nicotianae exoticae sit sanis salutaris, “Whether the often taking of Tobacco be wholesome for such as are sound and in health”; whilst when the discipline was Natural Philosophy a topic of debate was, An opera artis possit aurum conflari, “Whether Golde may be made by Arte.”
James was tremendously keen on these exercises, regularly making his own contributions to the learned disputes, and allowing the sessions to continue in St Mary’s without complaint for as long as five hours: hardly surprising that he fell asleep in the play that followed. But King James clearly left the Oxford men convinced that in the new king they had someone who shared their own intellectual appetites.
Now, my room with its peculiar decorations is in the shadow of St Mary’s church. If the roses and thistles have anything to do with James’ visit (which is undoubtedly a very big “if”, but I’m stumped for another explanation), it may just be that they are part of the general beautification of the city that was undertaken in preparation for the royal visit. However, the Cambridge witness talks, as one would expect, of a polishing up of the externals: “Against the King’s coming to Oxford, it was provided, that all rayles, posts, barrs of windows, casements, and pumpes, should be newly paynted, and all armes were newly tricked. The like was done also in all the streets of the City, and at the severell Gates thereof, with dials and such like; the streets were very finely paved and well swept.”
The decorations in my room are quite invisible from the street, and I can’t help wondering whether this building beside St Mary’s church was prepared for the use of the royal entourage during those two days of “disputation”, for rest, refreshment, or, who knows, a lavatory break. I can’t explain the rose/thistle motif except as some kind of reference to James, while the quality of the carved fauns and the fireplace decoration seem to me to bespeak a room that expected some important visitors.
What I’m letting myself wonder, of course, is whether James VI of Scotland and I of England took his ease, one day 409 years ago, in what is now my teaching room.
But perhaps I should settle for Mr Tumnus.
Behold! A map of the city and harbour of Cartagena, in southern Spain, for your delectation. And it may make things easier later on if you note carefully the position of the island of Escombrera or Escombreras, right at the bottom.
To the Romans Cartagena was known as Carthago Nova, New Carthage, and it was celebrated as one of the very finest natural harbours they knew. It’s easy enough to see why: in the sixteenth century the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria was in the habit of saying that the three most secure anchorages in the Mediterranean were “Cartagena and June and July.” Under the settled conditions of the Roman Empire Carthago Nova was best known for its production of the highest quality garum, fermented fish sauce, an evil-smelling staple of Roman cuisine. That island Escombrera was in antiquity Scombraria, named after the scombri or mackerel from which this garum was manufactured.
But Carthago Nova had had an intense and troubled history, the consequence of that splendid harbour. In 228/7BC a Carthaginian general called Hasdrubal (there were quite a few answering that description) established it as a base for Carthaginian operations in Spain: he named it simply “Carthage”, since Qarthadasht in Punic means “New City”; the Romans called it “New Carthage” to distinguish it from the Carthaginian mother city in North Africa.
New Carthage was the key to Spain, and in 209BC, during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, the 25-year old P. Cornelius Scipio (later and better known as Scipio Africanus the Elder) captured it with a lightning manoeuvre. Henceforth the advantage in Spain, and in the war as a whole, shifted decisively towards the Romans. In 202BC Scipio would crush Hannibal at the battle of Zama: the capture of Carthago Nova was felt to have been a critical step towards that ultimate Roman victory.
My own interest in New Carthage came from thinking about Virgil, not the most obvious route in. But I and Ronnie Shi (remember that name, Classicists, for she will go far) have been writing an article about the harbour in North Africa where Aeneas and his companions find refuge in Aeneid Book 1, after the storm brought about by scheming Juno has blown them off course. Here’s the Latin, and a translation, of Virgil’s description of the place (Aen. 1.159-69):
est in secessu longo locus: insula portum
efficit obiectu laterum, quibus omnis ab alto
frangitur inque sinus scindit sese unda reductos.
Hinc atque hinc uastae rupes geminique minantur
in caelum scopuli, quorum sub uertice late
aequora tuta silent; tum siluis scaena coruscis
desuper horrentique atrum nemus imminet umbra.
fronte sub adversa scopulis pendentibus antrum,
intus aquae dulces uiuoque sedilia saxo,
nympharum domus: hic fessas non uincula nauis
ulla tenent, unco non alligat ancora morsu.
There is a place in a deep inlet: an island forms a harbour by the barrier of its flanks; all the waves coming from the open sea are broken by it and divide as they flow into the distant recesses of the bay. From this side and that huge cliffs loom skywards, twin headlands, and beneath their peaks the broad waters are safe and still. Above rises a backdrop of shimmering woods, a dark forest with quivering shadows. Under the cliff-face straight ahead there was a cave of hanging rock, and within it fresh water and seats in the living rock, the home of nymphs: here no chains moor the weary ships nor anchor fasten them with its hooked grip.
Ronnie and I were intrigued by a detail in Servius’ late-antique commentary on the Aeneid, where he records that some readers wanted to see Carthago Nova, in Spain, behind this description of a harbour near the original Carthage, in Africa. This struck us as quite an exciting idea: a hint of New Carthage at this point of the poem would introduce lots of interesting associations with Scipio and the Second Punic War, the life-and-death struggle between Carthage and Rome that is very much in the air as the ancestral founders of the two cities, Dido and Aeneas, meet and fall in love.
I won’t inflict the details of our argument on you. That pleasure can be reserved until we persuade a journal to accept it, crossed fingers. But I will share just one of the details that persuaded us Servius might have a point–that ancient readers could have picked up a hint of Carthago Nova in Virgil’s African harbour.
At the heart of our argument are resemblances between Virgil’s poetic harbour and descriptions of Carthago Nova in the historians Polybius and Livy. Their accounts are very similar, Livy imitating Polybius, so I’ll just quote Polybius (10.10.1-3). But one clear point of similarity between Polybius’ Carthago Nova and Virgil’s Carthage should be the island that sits in the mouth of the harbour and protects it from the effects of the open sea:
(New Carthage) lies halfway down the coast of Spain in an inlet facing the southwest wind. The inlet is about twenty stades in depth and about ten in breadth at its entrance. The whole inlet serves as a harbour for the following reason. At its mouth lies an island which leaves only a narrow channel on either side into the inlet, and as this stands in the way of the waves from the sea, the whole inlet is calm, except when south-westerlies blow on both channels and raise billows.
It seems clear to us that ancient readers of Virgil would have been reminded of the Spanish port when reading about the African one, although there’s a question where readers of the Aeneid would have got their idea of the layout of Carthago Nova. In Virgil’s great predecessor Q. Ennius, we think, rather than Polybius or Livy, but that’s another story. However, there’s a fascinating wrinkle here that takes us back to the map at the top of this post. At the beginning I called your attention to the island of Escombrera/Scombraria. That’s the island Polybius describes as sitting in the mouth of the harbour at Carthago Nova, and of course it’s that island-in-the-mouth that’s a key point of contact between Virgil and the historical descriptions of Carthago Nova.
But look at the map and it’s as clear as your nose that Escombrera doesn’t sit in the mouth of Carthago Nova harbour, or anywhere near it: in fact it lies a good three miles away.
Now, this isn’t a problem for our argument, because all we need to establish is that Virgil’s harbour looked like (what Virgil’s readers thought) Carthago Nova looked like, and Virgil’s readers would have got their idea of the place not from maps, which in our sense the Romans didn’t really have, but from descriptions in authors like Ennius. But I still think it’s fascinating that Polybius and Livy could have got it so wrong, that the ancient historical record of a location as important as Carthago Nova was so spectacularly inaccurate.
Now the obvious thing this tells us is that the Romans had an extremely limited grasp of geography. It’s clear from elsewhere in Livy’s history, for instance, that readers weren’t interested, and historians made little attempt to interest them, in geographical precision. This isn’t just another example of the practical Romans’ notorious suspicion of the intellect: yes, the Greeks were more into the theory of geography (a Greek word, after all), but both Greeks and Romans lacked some of the basic technical resources that allow the kind of accurate mapmaking we’re familiar with.
Perhaps it’s safer to say, though, that the geographical knowledge on show here is more sketchy than straightforwardly bad. We do, in fact, have an ancient account which places Escombrera in its true position: the Greek writer Strabo, in the course of a survey of the Spanish seaboard, mentions Carthago Nova, “by far the most powerful of all the cities in this country,” and “the Island of Heracles, which they call Scombraria, from the mackerel caught there, from which the best fish-sauce is prepared. It is 24 stadia distant from New Carthage.” A stadion was equivalent to about an eighth of a Roman mile, so that’s about right. In general the ancients knew as much as they needed to know about their physical surroundings: there might even be pockets of quite impressive accuracy, but the pieces were never joined up.
Proving that the Romans were rubbish at geography is quite satisfying, I have to admit. But what I find most interesting, exciting even, about all this is something a bit different. I mentioned earlier the question of which text it was in which Virgil’s readers found what they knew about Carthago Nova. We suspect Ennius’ great national epic the Annales, which will certainly have given space to Scipio’s glorious capture of the city. Reaching that conclusion involves some pretty dry research comparing possible earlier accounts to decide who influenced whom: there’s an appropriately forbidding German word for the exercise, Quellenforschung, sources-research. But in this case, it seems to me, Quellenforschung achieves something remarkable, capturing an individual human experience at a remove of well over two thousand years.
What on earth am I talking about?
Well, it seems clear how the error in the historical record about the position of Escombrera crept in. Because, as a recent Spanish book all about the island explains, “[Viewed] from the innermost part of the bay of Cartagena, the island of Escombreras seems to close off the mouth of the harbour almost completely.” In other words, seen from a vantage point at the southern edge of the city, the island does look like it sits squarely in the mouth of the harbour, and it follows that that is where the original source behind Polybius, Livy, and indirectly Virgil (who for various reasons is most likely someone even earlier than Q. Ennius), must have been standing when they noted down their entirely false eyewitness impression.
It may at a stretch have been Polybius himself, who certainly visited Carthago Nova in the second century BC. But there’s reason to believe that Polybius was mainly dependent for his account of the city on earlier sources. On whom precisely is a matter of speculation, but there seem to be four contenders: Scipio Africanus himself, who wrote a letter about his campaigns in Spain and at Carthago Nova to king Philip V of Macedon (Polybius 10.9.3); C. Laelius, a close friend of Scipio and an important informant of Polybius (Polybius 10.3.2); or most likely of all, one of two historians of whose work very little survives, but whom we know Polybius used extensively in his own history, Q. Fabius Pictor and Silenus.
Q. Fabius Pictor is an important figure in Roman literature, the very first Roman historian, although his history of Rome was, originally at least, written in Greek, the language of such intellectual pursuits as history writing and geography. Fabius would be a strong candidate for our eyewitness if his history extended down as far as 209BC, the date of the capture of Carthago Nova, and that is far from certain. (To be honest, very little is certain about Q. Fabius Pictor.) Fabius was exceptionally well-connected on the Roman political scene, a member of one of the most prestigious families in a very prestige-obsessed city, and second cousin of one of Hannibal’s most effective opponents, Q. Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, known for his tactics as Cunctator, “the Delayer”. Fabius Pictor had a political career himself, it seems, before turning to writing history with the advantage of his extensive insider knowledge; the section of his history devoted to the Punic Wars adopted a predictably pro-Roman stance.
But my candidate for the man staring out to sea is the Greek historian Silenus. Probably a native of the city of Caleacte in Sicily, Silenus was part of Hannibal’s retinue during his famous fifteen-year campaign in Italy, which started with Hannibal’s departure from Carthago Nova in 218BC, “recording the actions of Hannibal with great diligence,” according to Cicero (Div. 1.49) as he inflicted such catastrophic defeats on the Romans as Trasimene and Cannae. Among other things, the fragments of Fabius and Silenus suggest interesting ways in which the Romans and Carthaginians competed for hearts and minds, both for example keen to associate their side of the war with the hero-god Heracles/Hercules/Melqart, a figure worshipped across the Mediterranean and especially popular among the non-Roman peoples of the Italian peninsula, whose sympathies were of crucial importance in the conflict.
So was it Silenus standing there gazing out at Escombrera in the spring of 218BC? It is the very purest speculation, but one thing that makes me want to believe it is that Strabo (3.5.7) refers to Silenus as “something of an idiotes” on geographical matters, and while the Greek word idiotes doesn’t quite mean “idiot”, it comes pretty close to “hopeless amateur”.
That would be a fair assessment of the original source of the information about the location of Escombrera.