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I’d like to report a murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The source of the illustration at the top is here.

A city with no name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Antoneid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford, a satire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sitzender Herkules, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forsan et haec olim…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can gods cry?


My blog poses the questions that everybody wants answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick, pluck or even savour the day

Enjoy the promotional video for this fantastic new exhibition in the Ashmolean, running until January 12. There’s a wonderful collection of artefacts on display, from Pompeii and elsewhere, and you can find me raving about it here, all thanks to a freebie from Sophie Hay. This piece, for example, combines at least three of my favourite things, Latin, Hercules, and piglets.

I have just one bone to pick, and it’s with the encouragement to “seize the day” at the end of the video. Not that you shouldn’t be prepared to commandeer a train if that’s what it takes to get to this show — my problem is simply with “seize the day” as an English translation of Horace’s motto carpe diem, which in the Latin is a much richer turn of phrase. As Tom Holland (another beneficiary of Sophie’s generosity) pointed out to me, furthermore, once properly appreciated the full meaning of carpe diem would serve well an exhibition largely concerned with Roman foodstuffs and sensory pleasures.

Carpe diem originates in one of Horace’s lyric poems, Odes 1.11, and it expresses a characteristically lyric sentiment: live for the moment. “Seize the day” captures that well enough, but “seize” does a poor job, really, of conveying the Latin carpe. To get a better sense of it, Nisbet & Hubbard cite approvingly (it is not always so) the ancient commentator Porphyrio: “the metaphor”, Porphyrio writes, “is from fruit, which … we pick (carpimus) in order to enjoy.”

Now, you might use carpere of picking or plucking a flower, too, and whether the day is a fruit or a flower it works well enough for Horace’s poem, where the instruction, addressed to a woman named Leuconoe, also carries an erotic charge. But I think conceiving of the day as a metaphorical apple or plum (or quince, if you prefer) works best. What an apple on a tree represents is something needing to be exploited in a very narrow window of time, when the fruit is ripe but before it spoils. Life is to be enjoyed now, Horace insists, because who knows what will happen tomorrow.

Needless to say, the notion that life is an apple, and there’s no time to waste before you sink your teeth into it, applies especially well to the unfortunate inhabitants of Pompeii in AD 79.

When words collide

In Poem 84 Catullus has a go at a man named Arrius.

Arrius’ fault is to aspirate, add an initial aitch to, unaspirated Latin words, turning insidiae into hinsidiae and commoda into chommoda, the ch not as in church but (W. Sidney Allen’s example, Vox Latina p. 26) quite like the initial sound of cot. Catullus’ target may be Q. Arrius, a lower-class, self-made orator snootily dismissed by Cicero in his history of oratory at Brutus 242-3. There are other open questions about the poem (what the point of calling Arrius’ uncle “free” is, for example, and whether the joke in the last line is just that Arrius and his aitches are on their way home), but Catullus’ objection to Arrius’ hypercorrection no doubt carries an edge of disdain from the upper-class (and self-consciously sophisticated) poet toward a social inferior, someone socially as well as phonetically aspirational. Romans were terrible snobs, needless to say.

I’m interested in something more specific, though. Line 8, audibant eadem haec leniter et leuiter, describes the halcyon aural conditions that obtain when Arrius and his aitches have left the country; literally, “they (either everyone, or everyone’s ears) heard these same words smoothly and softly” in Arrius’ absence, leuiter hinting at the spiritus leuis or “soft breathing”, the symbol that indicates a lack of aspiration over an initial vowel in Greek (Quinn, Catullus, the poems, ad loc.). But what there also is in line 8 is an example of the meeting of two words in a poetic line generally known as elision, but more accurately as synaloepha (“melding”): the four syllables eadem haec become three, because -em and hae- coalesce into one.

Synaloepha is a common feature of Latin poetry, and it happens when a vowel or diphthong at the end of one word meets a vowel or diphthong at the start of the next. In this poem, for example, we see it in line 2, dicere, et (pronounced diceret), and 3, se esse (sesse). In most cases it was not strictly a matter of “elision”, a syllable being entirely lost, but some kind of combination of the two vowels or diphthongs into one–hence the preference for “synaloepha” as the term to describe it. Eadem haec, one word ending with -m, the next starting with h-, doesn’t at first sight look like it should be subject to the same process. But a vowel followed by m in Catullus’ Latin was pronounced as a nasalized long vowel, while the aspiration of h was so weakly realised, in elite Latin at least, that it was as if the word simply opened with the diphthong ae.

That said, how exactly the blending of eadem and haec would have sounded is hard to reconstruct: a nasalized contraction of long e and ae, maybe (W. Sidney Allen, Vox Latina p. 81), or (J. Soubiran, L’élision dans la poésie latine p. 132, supported by Quintilian, Inst. 9.4.40) something like ewae, the -em expressed by “rounding the lips as if to end with a -w” (A. Gratwick, Plautus, Menaechmi p. 251).

If that seems awkward, there are indications in the poetic use of this kind of synaloepha of -m, as Soubiran remarks, that it could be heard as an unpleasant sound: the textbook example (for ancients and moderns) is Virgil’s description of Polyphemus at Aeneid 3.658, monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens (monstruworrenduwinformingens), a splurge of sound that destroys the elegant fabric of the heroic hexameter and is clearly designed to convey the ugliness of the Cyclops. That doesn’t exhaust the expressive power of synaloepha of -m, though: a line in many ways similar to the Cyclops line, Aen. 9.170, describing Latinus’ palace, tectum augustum, ingens, centum sublime columnis (tectuwaugustuwingens), seems to suggest a building soaring beyond one’s ability to discern its structure, dissolving the structure of the hexameter for different effect, or so I once proposed (Musa pedestris p. 331). More persuasive is E.J. Kenney’s remark, in a review of Soubiran (CR 17 (1967), 325-8), that synaloepha can be “used, especially by Virgil, to produce an almost unlimited range of effects.” Elsewhere Catullus himself, at 17.26, ferream ut soleam tenaci in voragine mula, “as a mule [leaves] her iron shoe in the clinging mire”, “smears together” two normally separate elements of a composite verse to evoke, in tenacin, a horseshoe left stuck in the mud.

Returning to Catullus 84, what cannot assert itself in this encounter between eadem and haec is any aspiration of the h. The synaloepha in line 8 is tackled in a very acute reading of this poem by E. Vandiver (“Sound patterns in Catullus 84”, The Classical Journal 85 (1990), 337-40). Her suggestion is that it would have been pronounced eadhaec (a true elision of -em, in effect), and thus might evoke the aspirated consonants like ch that Arrius was in the habit of inflecting on everyone. In fact, though, as I’ve explained, that kind of elision of vowel + m isn’t generally considered the most likely account. But even if it were, an h with sufficient force to persist in this way wouldn’t admit synaloepha (by compromising the preceding vowel sound) at all.

So my suspicion is that something like the opposite is true. My polymathic colleague Jonathan Katz points out to me that unless Catullus is making a point about haec, there’s really no need to include this word at all. What is his point in introducing an h only to suppress it, then? Surely, rather than echoing Arrius’ crimes against good Latin, the line that describes a life (temporarily) free of Arrius’ aspirations is serving up an aitch pronounced as it should be pronounced, i.e. not pronounced at all.

For as long as Arrius is away, in other words, even when there’s an h on the page, no one ‘as to ‘ear it.

Desperately seeking Sulpicia

A blog on something that caught my attention at a conference this week, an epitaph (AE 1928, no. 73) discovered in Rome in the 1920s:

Behold, traveller, the ashes of Sulpicia the reader,
to whom had been given the slave name Petale.
She had lived in number more than thirty-four years
and had given birth to a son, Aglaos, in this world.
She had seen all the good things of nature. She flourished in art.
She excelled in beauty. She had grown in talent.
Jealous Fate was unwilling for her to lead a lengthy time in life;
their very distaff failed the Fates.

The suggestion made during the conference was that what I’ve given as the translation of the first three words, “the ashes of Sulpicia the reader”, was only one option: they could also be read as “the ashes of the reader of Sulpicia”, i.e. Sulpicia was not the name of the dead woman, but of her employer or owner. In either case we’re dealing with a servant who apparently had the job of reading to her current or former owners. This person would be a rarely-attested example of a female reader, a lectrix rather than a male lector. If her name was Sulpicia she had certainly been freed, as I’ll explain, whereas if she was “of/belonging to Sulpicia” she might still be a slave; in the latter case, too, the identity of Sulpicia would offer scope for speculation.

I had not heard of this inscription before yesterday, but it struck me as obvious on reading it that the subject of the epitaph was Sulpicia Petale the lectrix, and that there was no other Sulpicia directly relevant to this inscription: it really wasn’t ambiguous. The key was the second line, quoi seruile datum nomen erat Petale, “to whom the slave name Petale had been given”. Why would the inscription specify the subject’s “slave name”, rather than simply recording her name as Petale, unless she was no longer a slave? And if, as it seems, she had been freed, why wouldn’t her freed name be given? Manumitted slaves assumed the name of their former masters: Tiro, freed by M. Tullius Cicero, became M. Tullius Tiro. If Petale had belonged to Cicero and then been freed, she would have become Tullia Petale. Our Petale belonged to a family of Sulpicii, hence when freed became Sulpicia Petale. What the first couplet of this epitaph is doing, then, is naming the dead person, albeit in a more elaborate fashion than usual. “These are the remains of Sulpicia, whose name when a slave was Petale.” Her respectable name leads; her older, slave name is consigned to the end of the couplet. It’s very elegant composition, and that can’t be said of everything in this poem.

I really can’t think of any other way of understanding the second line, and I find the popularity of the idea that there’s ambiguity here quite hard to fathom. For that matter, an epitaph beginning not with the name of the person honoured but their employer or owner seems awkward even in a Roman context, and taking Sulpiciae as governed by lectricis and unrelated to cineres feels like a very unnatural way of reading the Latin. Nevertheless this is a reading found in all the recent discussions of the inscription that I’ve seen, and it originated with no less an eminence than Jérôme Carcopino, who introduced the newly-found inscription to the Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France in 1928: “De Sulpicia la lectrice (ou: De la lectrice de Sulpicia?)” is the translation he offered of Sulpiciae … lectricis.

Carcopino’s interest in this inscription, as expressed in his presentation to the Société, explicitly consists in the possibility that it offers a connection to the most celebrated bearer of the name Sulpicia. This Sulpicia was a poet some of whose compositions (which poems in particular is fiercely debated) are included in the third book of Tibullus’ elegies: she is in fact the only female poet in Latin whose poetry survives from antiquity (Carcopino speculates that this epitaph is another one of her poems), and in the past this has drawn to her an interesting kind of attention. Mathilde Skoie’s book in the bibliography is a brilliant study of the reception of Sulpicia from the Renaissance onwards, responses she sees as united by a determination “to write scandal out of the text”, a refusal to acknowledge the truly scandalous force of a woman speaking of sexual desire in the context of a culture as male-dominated as Rome (cf. Stevenson 36). Carcopino doesn’t escape this style of patronising chivalry himself, speculating that Petale’s name, which suggests Greek petalon, a leaf, bears a resemblance to the name of Sulpicia’s lover in her elegies, Cerinthus, from kerinthon, honeywort, “as if, in the house of Sulpicia, all the names she gave had to breathe a perfume similarly mingled with flowers and Hellenism.” Hmm, though, to be fair, he does also study the language of the epitaph, concluding that it could be dated to late Republic/early Empire–Sulpicia the elegist’s time, in other words.

If seems clear enough that nobody would have paid much attention to this inscription if it hadn’t featured the name Sulpicia. But I think I’d go further and say that it’s this wish to find Sulpicia the poet in the epitaph that also explains the peculiar determination, in the face of fairly obvious objections, to find its opening ambiguous. Some kind of connection to the poet is not entirely precluded if we read “Sulpicia the lectrix” (she belonged to, and was freed by, people bearing the name Sulpicius), but it’s much more tenuous. If it were “the lectrix of Sulpicia”, on the other hand, there would be someone other than the dead woman identified as Sulpicia, and this Sulpicia would be someone who enjoyed having literature read to her.

Well, my concern in all this is really just a question of interpretation: I can’t make the Latin say what Carcopino and many others want it to be able to say. Not everything in this epitaph is crystal-clear, but the first couplet is: the dead woman was a Sulpicia with the slave name Petale, Sulpicia Petale. But there is another dimension to all this. Sulpicia the poet, while a truly remarkable individual, was the aristocratic daughter of Servius Sulpicius Rufus, renowned jurist and correspondent of Cicero, and niece of M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus, one of the most prominent figures in Augustan Rome, both in poetry and politics.

Sulpicia Petale had by sheer ability escaped slavery and earned the immortality represented by this versified inscription. Well, maybe that’s me being as sentimental as Carcopino, but I can’t help feeling that Sulpicia Petale, the real subject of this epitaph, is where we should be directing our attention.

M. J. Carcopino, “Épitaphe en vers de la lectrice Petale”, Bulletin de la Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France 1929, 84–6;
P. Hallett, “Absent Roman Fathers in the writings of their daughters: Cornelia and Sulpicia”, in S. Huebner and D. M. Ratzan (eds.), Growing Up Fatherless in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2009), 175-91, at 187-90;
P. Hallett, “Ovid’s Thisbe and a Roman Woman Love Poet”, in B.W. Boyd and C. Fox (eds.), Approaches to Teaching World Literature: Ovid and Ovidianism (New York, 2010), 414-433, at 367-370;
P. Hallett, “Scenarios of Sulpiciae: moral discourses and immoral verses”, EuGeStA 1 (2011);
E. Hauser, “Optima tu proprii nominis auctor: The semantics of female authorship in ancient Rome, from Sulpicia to Proba”, EuGeStA 6 (2016);
M. Skoie, Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475-1990 (Oxford, 2002);
J. Stevenson, Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2005), (on this inscription) 42-44.