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Talking to God


The emperor Domitian (r.) smites enemies & communes with the gods, from the temple of Khnum at Esna. Photo @ Olaf Tausch

A short blog, the fruit of my efforts to beat insomnia with night-time reading entirely unrelated to my work.

So I’ve been reading Graeme Wood on supporters of ISIS, and after that Penelope Wilson on hieroglyphs, rather different kinds of book but I recommend both. What caught my attention in each of them was a linguistic phenomenon I find intriguing, the impulse people can feel to take language, this practical tool we use to navigate around our world, and transmute it into something more exalted: a medium for addressing the divine.

I didn’t know until I read Wood’s book that Salafi Muslims cultivate an archaic style of spoken Arabic, a form of the language reflecting their desire to emulate the very earliest generations of Islam, al salaf al salih, the pious forefathers. Rejecting contemporary forms of Arabic brings them closer to the Prophet and the Quran, closer to God’s revelation. Wood describes having his colloquial Arabic corrected by an Egyptian Salafist (p.33):

Ahmad took me to lunch at a chicken restaurant where we ate well and he, over my objection, paid the bill out of his student stipend. He corrected my Arabic over and over, studiously transposing the street dialect that came most easily to me with the high register favored by Salafis. Chicken was not firakh, but dajaj. Any time I pronounced the letter jim with a hard g, in the Egyptian way, he corrected it to the more classical j as in “Juliet”: “Jamal,” not “Gamal,” was the name of the dead Egyptian strongman Nasser. The letter qaf, instead of vanishing without a trace as in normal Egyptian speech, had to be pronounced deep in the throat, where the soft palate meets the tongue: qalam [pen], not alam. My language was getting purer, word by word and bite by bite.

Qalam is the Greek word kalamos in fact, but never mind.

Still in Egypt, albeit a few centuries earlier, another thing I didn’t appreciate was how significant the “hiero-” (“sacred”) bit of “hieroglyphs” was. From Wilson (p.18) I learned that the Ancient Egyptian word for this pictorial writing was medu-netjer, meaning “words of god,” and that the primary function of hieroglyphic script was to enable communication between Egyptians and their gods. This wasn’t a different form of language, of course, so much as an esoteric way of representing that language (though if I understand rightly, hieroglyphs were also associated with an archaic and ossified form of the Egyptian language).

By way of illustration, Wilson memorably describes the different audiences targeted by the three texts on the Rosetta Stone (p.31):

Greek (for the ruling administration of the day), hieroglyphs (for the gods), and Demotic (for everyone else).

She also rather beautifully encourages us to imagine that the hieroglyphs accompanying images of human activity and speech covering tombs might become audible: “the tombs would be full of noise, and the chatter of hundreds of people” (p.46). Again, if I understand correctly, the things depicted are summoned into existence by being named in hieroglyphic form. The hieroglyphs secure from the gods an Afterlife for the dead person as rich as the life they have departed. For the dead, I suppose, the tomb with its images and hieroglyphs in effect is that wonderful new life.

I hope I’ve got that right, because a) I find it frankly and gloriously mind-blowing, and b) it’s the main motivation for this blog. And while the whole idea was to be reading stuff at bedtime that was unrelated to work, I couldn’t help thinking about Greco-Roman things, too.

If the Greeks and Romans had anything like hieroglyphics or Quranic Arabic, linguistic ways of communing with God, it might be the dactylic hexameter. This is a verse form, and as Paul Fussell wrote in his classic book on the matter, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, one of the essential effects of couching language in verse, making prose poetry, is to raise its register (p.12):

meter, by distinguishing rhythmic from ordinary statement, objectifies that statement and impels it toward a significant formality and even ritualism.

But if all metre is a “ritual frame”, as Fussell calls it, for the language it encloses, there are more and less elevated kinds of metre, and in antiquity the highest form of communication was that done in dactylic hexameters. That included conveying the utterances of the gods. In fact it was believed that the hexameter was invented by the Pythian priestess at Delphi (Pausanias 10.5.7), to be the vehicle for the oracles that the god Apollo shared with humanity.

A more familiar function of the hexameter, though, is as the medium for another kind of divine narrative, epic poetry. This is poetry describing, typically, a heroic world of superior humans, but represents divine speech in at least two ways. First, part of the greatness of the heroes of epic was the ease with which they communed with gods, who aided them and appeared and spoke to them. The epic world is one governed by the gods, and in Homer and Virgil and other epic poets we often see the gods discussing among themselves how events on earth should unfold. Secondly, though, this made the task of the epic poet a daunting one, since they needed inspiration sufficient to be able to relate the deeds and words of the very highest beings. Conventionally epic poets would claim that their poem was itself divine speech. “Tell me of the man of many wiles, Muse,” is how Homer’s Odyssey begins, and “Sing of the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, goddess,” the Iliad.

“Speeches of the gods” could even be shorthand for epic poetry. In Odes 3.3 Horace closely imitated the epic poet Quintus Ennius, Virgil’s great predecessor at Rome, and a speech that Ennius gave to Juno in a Council of the Gods in the first book of his epic poem Annales. At the end of his poem Horace admits that in formal terms he’s seriously broken the rules, putting this epic material in one of his own lyric poems:

Non hoc iocosae conveniet lyrae;

quo, Musa, tendis? Desine pervicax

referre sermones deorum et

magna modis tenuare parvis.


This will not suit the light-hearted lyre!

Where are you heading, Muse? Cease in your wilfulness

to report the speeches of gods and

diminish great matters in small measures!

Why? Because the only proper habitat for gods and their awe-inspiring utterances is the heroic measure, the hexameter.

More to my godless taste, I have to admit, is Juvenal’s take on this whole issue. In his fourth satire Juvenal lays into the emperor Domitian, describing the measures taken by the tyrant to get a huge turbot cooked. The poem is a parody of an epic (which doesn’t survive) by Statius on Domitian’s military exploits in Germany; like almost all Roman satire it is written, like epic, in hexameters, an outrageous act of misappropriation by satire which established it once and for all as epic’s disreputable twin.

At 34-6 Juvenal parodies the conventional epic evocation of the Muse, the plea for access to divine knowledge.

incipe, Calliope. licet et considere: non est

cantandum, res uera agitur. narrate, puellae

Pierides, prosit mihi uos dixisse puellas.


Begin, Calliope! And do please sit down: there’s no call

for singing, these are real events were dealing with. Tell the story, maidens

of Pieria, and may I profit from having called you maidens.

Brutal stuff, but that’s satire. He summons the Muse Calliope (the Muse of epic, the grandest of them all), then makes a nasty joke about the Muses’ sexual morality. I’m more interested in the first line and a half, because in them Juvenal carries out an expert demolition of this divine medium. Incipe, Calliope is authentically epic, but as he tells Calliope to stop taking it so seriously the verse form collapses, too. Some brilliantly shabby versification follows: non est is a useless, unemphatic cadence to the line, and res uera agitur deliberately obscures by elision another important structural element of the heroic hexameter, its central caesura.

A less technical way of putting it is that Juvenal starts line 34 in epic mode, as he should when a god is being addressed, but then collapses into all-too-human prose. I find the aspiration that we feel to speak the language of the gods fascinating, but I find Juvenal’s utter refusal to respect it most refreshing, too.

Fearful symmetry


I’m finally finished with a project I’ve been working at, off and on, for–well, longer than I care to calculate. It is an annotated bibliography of Roman poetic metre, not an awfully thrilling task. But once in a while it reawakened the interest that made me write this book, and to celebrate its conclusion I offer one such moment.

Here is a poem by Martial (2.7), followed by a translation indebted to Shackleton Bailey in the Loeb.

Declamas belle, causas agis, Attice, belle;

historias bellas, carmina bella facis;

componis belle mimos, epigrammata belle;

bellus grammaticus, bellus es astrologus,

et belle cantas et saltas, Attice, belle;                            5

bellus es arte lyrae, bellus es arte pilae.

Nil bene cum facias, facias tamen omnia belle,

uis dicam quid sis? Magnus es ardalio.


You’re a nice declaimer, Attalus, a nice pleader,

you write nice histories and nice poems,

you compose mimes nicely, and epigrams nicely,

you’re a nice grammarian and a nice astronomer,

and you sing nicely, Atticus, and dance nicely;                             5

you’re nicely versed in the art of the lyre, nicely versed in the ball.

Seeing that you do nothing well, but do everything nicely,

would you like me to say what you are? A total trifler.

Martial appears to be flattering Atticus for his stunning panoply of talents, in public speaking, writing, scholarship, music and sport, but actually exposes him as a talentless dabbler, an ardalio.

A lot of the work of the poem is done by the word bellus, superficially complimentary (“pretty, handsome, fine”; I go with “nice”, which isn’t perfect) but “freq. iron.”, according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary. We’re not too far into the poem before we realise that bellus is indeed ironic: Atticus is only superficially talented, in fact a jack of all trades, master of none.

The metre of the poem is elegiac couplets, which combine a dactylic hexameter, the metre of epic, with a pentameter. The pentameters goes like this (where u is a short syllable,  _ a long, and || a word break or caesura): _ u u _ u u _|| _ u u _ u u _. In the first half of the line either of the double shorts, u u, can be replaced by a long _. But the second half of the line is always _ u u _ u u _.

There’s a mnemonic for the pentameter that I inflict on my students: “strawberry strawberry jam; strawberry strawberry jam”. This is a pentameter, but in the first half either strawberry can be a “strawb’ry”, two long syllables, whereas in the second half each strawberry must be a “strawberry”, three syllables (a long and two shorts).

It’s clear enough that the pentameter, a repetition of _ u u _ u u _, is a form tending toward symmetry. But elegiac poets, Greek and Latin, felt an aesthetic imperative to resist this impulse. In particular they avoided a type of line represented by Ovid’s notorious description of the Minotaur at Ars Amatoria 2.24, semibouemque uirum, semiuirumque bouem (“half-bull man and half-man bull”). There is a great story about this line of Ovid recorded by Seneca the Elder, but one problem with it was probably that its two halves are completely interchangeable, identical both in metre and word shape: semiuirumque bouem, semibouemque uirum would scan just as well.

Now this interchangeability (I can never remember which way round the line goes) makes it a brilliant verbal evocation of the hybrid character of the Minotaur (nothing less than we’d expect from Ovid), but also a line shape that was felt to be too neat and tidy. Trying to capture the character of this kind of line, Platnauer calls it “a jingle”, and Luque Moreno “llamativo”, “showy”. That ancient poets felt the same is proved by how how rarely they produce lines like this, and what effects they’re clearly after when they do. (Ovid’s line was evidence for Seneca that Ovid was a slave to his own poetic licentia, lack of decorum, and “was not unaware of his literary faults, but in love with them.”)

Well, there’s another example of a perfectly symmetrical pentameter in line 7 of Martial’s epigram, the climax of his catalogue of Atticus’ accomplishments, bellus es arte lyrae, bellus es arte pilae. I find it fascinating when metre communicates as much as any other element of the poetic composition, and here is a case in point.

For what is the Latin for a symmetrical pentameter, superficially deft but actually rather vulgar? 

Bellus [iron.]


Version 2

Some flamens, photo by Sophie Hay

A curse is a spooky enough topic for Christmas, I reckon. But this blog about curses (exsecrationes in Latin) is really for me to get some thoughts straight in my head. I am still investigating a Roman priest known as the flamen dialis, a priest of Jupiter (as I touched on here, a strange figure who could be considered a kind of animate statue of the god), and one thing I want to understand better is how this priesthood was regarded during Augustus’ reign. (All ultimately with a view to deciding on a possible role for it in Virgil’s Aeneid, but that’s another matter.)

The most important thing to appreciate about this priesthood and Augustan Rome is that for the first half of Augustus’ reign there was actually no flamen dialis in post. This office, a crucial intermediary between Rome and its most powerful patron, the chief god Jupiter, had remained unoccupied since the death by his own hand of the flamen L. Cornelius Merula in 87BC. My assumption is that the absence of the flamen dialis from Rome was a cause of significant anxiety: the Romans were deeply superstitious people, setting great store by the pax deorum, the harmonious relations between them and their gods which could only be maintained by meticulous observation of their religious obligations.

If maintaining this special relationship with the divine realm was a priority, it was because the favour shown their city by the gods was for Romans the best explanation of their rapid rise to power in Italy and the wider Mediterranean. Equally, however, when their fortunes turned sour, and Rome shifted from seemingly unlimited expansion to a traumatic century of internal conflict (only finally brought to an end by Augustus), the Romans could only conclude that they had somehow offended the gods, and this was their punishment. A key element of Augustus’ project to restore Rome after this crisis was mending this all-important relationship, renovating temples, restoring neglected religious practices, in general returning Rome to what he could claim to be the lifestyle that drew the gods’ approval in the first place.

In the event, a new flamen dialis, Ser. Cornelius Lentulus Maluginensis, was at length appointed in (probably) 11BC, shortly after Augustus had finally secured the role of pontifex maximus for himself. The pontifex maximus or chief priest was responsible for selecting the flamen dialis (though he was also subordinate to the flamen in status, interestingly enough), but Augustus had had to wait to assume the role of pontifex until the death of the previous incumbent, the humiliated and sidelined former triumvir M. Aemilius Lepidus. A natural reading of this sequence of events would be that one of Augustus’ very first acts on becoming pontifex maximus in 12BC was to fill the yawning gap in Rome’s religious fabric, the office of flamen dialis. But there is some debate about the date of Maluginensis’ appointment, and the order of events is not so certain.

My hunch, as I’ve suggested, is that Rome could not bear the absence of such an essential religious figure with equanimity; and that when Augustus did select a new priest of Jupiter, a lifetime after the last flamen dialis had died, it would have been a very impressive gesture, a powerful contribution to the climate that Augustus sought, a perception that Rome, after all the trauma of the Civil Wars, was back on its feet; a profound crisis on the divine plane had been resolved.

Merula, the last flamen dialis, had been a particularly prominent victim of those wars, and that’s really all I need to have to argue for the research I’m doing. But an article by Bernadette Liou-Gille (“César, ‘Flamen Dialis destinatus’,” Revue des études anciennes 101 [1999], 433-459, to which I was alerted by Professor Roberta Stewart) opened up a new and weirder dimension to this story.

Liou-Gille is interested in the circumstances and immediate aftermath of Merula’s death in 87BC. The context is the furious rivalry for control of Rome between L. Cornelius Sulla and L. Cornelius Cinna, the latter supported by the great general C. Marius. In simple terms, Cinna, who was consul, had been driven out of Rome, and Merula, the flamen dialis, had been appointed consul in his place (Professor Stewart suggested to me, because no one would dare to harm a hair on the head of the priest of Jupiter). When Cinna and Marius proceeded to recapture the city, Merula resigned the consulship, and then, faced with efforts by Cinna to bring him to trial (Appian, BC 1.74), took his own life.

The most detailed account of his death is by Velleius (2.22.2):

Merula autem, qui se sub aduentum Cinnae consulatu abdicauerat, incisis uenis superfusoque altaribus sanguine, quos saepe pro salute rei publicae flamen dialis precatus erat deos, eos in exsecrationem Cinnae partiumque eius tum precatus optime de re publica meritum spiritum reddidit.

Meanwhile Merula, who had resigned his consulship in anticipation of the arrival of Cinna, slit his veins and drenched the altars with his blood, praying to the gods, to whom he had often as flamen dialis prayed for the wellbeing of Rome, to curse Cinna and his party. In this way he yielded up the life that had served Rome so well.

After that (and this is the main focus of Liou-Gille’s article) a teenage Julius Caesar (who was close to Cinna, married to his daughter, and a nephew of Cinna’s ally Marius) was designated flamen dialis in Merula’s place, but never actually assumed the priesthood, no doubt mainly because both Cinna and Marius were dead within a short time, and when Sulla recaptured Rome at the end of 82BC he promptly rescinded all the measures they had taken.

Liou-Gille takes Velleius’ account of Merula’s death literally, not as a historian’s rhetorical flourish: as Merula died, he drew down a curse upon his enemies, offering his own life to the gods in return for divine punishment of “Cinna and his party”. The way Velleius puts it suggests a polar reversal of the flamen‘s power, from promoting the good fortune of the Roman res publica to becoming an agent of vengeance. The effort to make Caesar flamen dialis in Merula’s place, Liou-Gille argues, was actually an attempt to neutralize the malign influence of this exsecratio, to mend relations with the hostile gods by making a close confederate of Cinna the priest who devoted himself to serving Jupiter.

I think what I like most about Liou-Gille’s reading of these events is her assumption that Romans, including the notoriously cerebral Julius Caesar, were motivated by superstition, by a genuine terror of the gods. It’s easy to misjudge the Romans, by some of the things put on paper by Cicero or Ovid, as rational types whose religion was lightly worn. But in fact it was their scepticism that was only skin-deep.

Caesar never did become flamen dialis, and perhaps Sulla had particular reason to block his appointment: Sulla was undoubtedly a superstitious man, and he had no interest in diverting the wrath of the gods away from his enemies. But my particular interest, as I say, is how all this might have looked from the standpoint of Augustus’ principate, sixty or seventy years after Merula’s death. In other words, what are the implications of a hiatus in the office of the priest of Jupiter that lasted for a human lifetime, and might entail a curse still unpropitiated twenty years into the Pax Augusta? Certainly the lack of a flamen dialis cannot have increased Romans’ sense of security. But if we do suspect that Merula’s curse still exerted an influence, at whom would that divine wrath at “Cinna and his party” be directed in the Augustan age? The least we can say is that, if Julius Caesar had felt himself a target, it was in important respects Caesar’s legacy that was embodied by Augustus. Augustan Rome not only lacked that hotline to its greatest benefactor, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, then; it could also not be confident that Merula’s ancient curse was not still targeted at them.

Well, I’m very sure that Augustus’ appointment of a flamen dialis in 11BC was more than just a piece of political theatre. In the absence of a flamen dialis for over half a century (and what a dreadful half-century it had been), Rome had lacked a fundamental means of maintaining relations with the gods, the bedrock of its success as a nation. Until that rupture was healed, Rome’s recovery under Augustus’ direction could never be complete.

As for the rest of it, I can’t be so sure, but it would seem to me very true to the Roman mindset if something altogether more primitive was in play, the raw dread provoked by a ghastly death and priestly imprecation generations before, a suspicion that the gods’ wrath at their appalling crimes, the bloodletting of the Civil Wars encapsulated by the death of Merula, persisted, unappeased. For as long as the role of Jupiter’s “animate statue” remained unoccupied, Rome was still cursed.

Merry Christmas!


Version 2Photo courtesy of Sophie Hay

This bears the same relation to a blog as a grunt to coherent speech, but at this stage of term it’s all I’m capable of. Michaelmas term, as I may have mentioned before, is brutal, but this year two things have both increased my workload and kept me the right side of sanity: a weekly graduate seminar on Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto 4, the very last poems composed by Rome’s second-greatest and most influential poet, and a paper I gave a week ago on Aeneas and Roman priesthoods. At some point in mid-term two moments coalesced in my head, the first an image from my research on Roman priests, and the second a passage that particularly struck me from Ex Ponto 4.9. If they are actually related in any way, and not just randomly associated in my depleted cerebellum, the common factor is something like personal space. But the issue is also perhaps what Romans loved about their city, and what they also hated.

The city of Rome was loud, smelly and crowded: Horace talks of the beatae/ fumum et opes strepitumque Romae, “the smoke and riches and hubbub of prosperous Rome” (Odes 3.29.11-12). One’s capacity to enjoy a comfortable existence within it essentially depended on your wealth and class. The satirist Juvenal gives a splendidly exaggerated account of what it was like for the little guy (3.243-8):

                                       nobis properantibus obstat

unda prior, magno populus premit agmine lumbos

qui sequitur; ferit hic cubito, ferit assere duro

alter, at hic tignum capiti incutit, ille metretam.

pinguia crura luto, planta mox undique magna

calcor, et in digito clavus mihi militis haeret.

“As I hurry along, the wave ahead impedes me/ and the people that follow me in a massed rank crush my kidneys./ One smacks me with his elbow, another with a hard pole./ This guy bashes my head with a beam, that guy with a wine cask./ My legs are caked with mud, and now I’m trampled by huge feet on every side,/ and a soldier’s hobnail boot in planted on my toe.”

The rich man, according to Juvenal, avoids all this hassle by riding in a litter the size of a ship, and reads or writes or even sleeps as he’s effortlessly conveyed over the crowd.

Another way of keeping your distance from other people was the commoetaculum, a handy piece of equipment I’d never heard of until a couple of weeks ago. You can see a commoetaculum, a kind of wand, in the hand of the figure in the middle of the image at the top: the man holding it is a flamen, a variety of Roman priest, and may be the most important flamen, the flamen Dialis who was the priest of the chief god Jupiter.

All the flamens, but particularly the flamen Dialis, were obliged to live a life that segregated them from the rest of humanity. Their lives were dedicated to the gods they served, to the extent that they came to be regarded as offerings to the god or as their embodiments on earth, “a sacred and animate statue” of their deity, as Plutarch memorably puts it (QR 111). Other taboos laid on the priests, a prohibition on oaths, on knots in their clothes, on seeing humans at work, all served to distance the flamens from the domain of profani, ordinary people, and to make them sacer, sacred, the possession of the gods. The commoetaculum was a practical aide to this end: people were kept at a physical remove from the priest with a judicious prod of his wand. There might not seem an obvious class dimension to all this, except that the character of this priesthood was felt to reflect in important ways the behaviour and lifestyle of the ancient elite of Rome. You could only be flamen Dialis if you were a patrician, a member of the ancient Roman aristocratic class, and if you and your parents and your wife’s parents were all married by an arcane ritual called confarreatio, a ceremony again restricted to the patrician class. So there is in fact a very aristocratic quality to this implement designed to maintain a proper distance between a Roman of high status and the general populace.

Ovid was a toff, too. But by the time he was writing Ex Ponto 4, he couldn’t afford such scruples. Ovid has been banished, partly for obscure reasons apparently related to conspiracies against Augustus, and partly for his risqué poem The Art of Love, to the edge of the Empire, Tomi on the Black Sea in modern Romania. A consistent theme of the poems he writes back to men who might help him overturn his exile (superbly crafted and moving poems, as I’ve also suggested before) is how desperately he misses his home city. In general Roman authors could always conjure up a bit of ambivalence about Rome: wealthy, powerful, but in danger of neglecting the rustic virtues of simplicity and thrift that made them great in the first place. Ovid had no such qualms, delighting unapologetically in the vibrant society and culture of Augustan Rome.

To send such a man away from Rome was unusually vindictive, and that’s no doubt why Augustus did it. In exile Ovid dwells obsessively on the city from which he is banned, to the extent that, as a colleague put it during the seminar, we get a lot more detailed information about the city of Rome from Ovid far away on the Black Sea than we do from authors actually domiciled there.

In Ex Ponto 4.9 he celebrates the consulship won by Graecinus, another old associate he hopes will be able to make his case with the Emperor (Tiberius by now, as Augustus had recently died; but Tiberius proved no more sympathetic). Ovid imagines being on the spot as Graecinus goes through the elaborate ritual of inauguration, and it could not be more different from that fastidious priest with his pointy stick (4.9.21-8):

nec querulus, turba quamuis eliderer, essem,

sed foret a populo tum mihi dulce premi.

prospicerem gaudens quantus foret agminis ordo

densaque quam longum turba teneret iter,

quoque magis noris quam me uulgaria tangant,

spectarem qualis purpura te tegeret.

signa quoque in sella nossem formata curuli

et totum Numidi sculptile dentis opus.

Nor would I complain, though bruised by the crowd;/ at such a time it would be pleasant to feel the crush of the people./ I would behold with joy how long was the line of the procession/ and how dense the throng all along its route./ And that you may know how trivial things appeal to me,/ I would examine the texture of the purple you wear./ I would even inspect the figures carved on your curule chair,/ all the sculpted work of Numidian ivory.”

What “touches” (tangant) Ovid is uulgaria, a wonderfully suggestive word: trivial things, popular things, ordinary things. Ovid rejoices here in exactly what Juvenal would later complain so bitterly about, getting manhandled by crowds, emerging physically battered from a walk in the city. But it is the touch, the sensation of Rome that he yearns for: the things a Roman would take for granted, Graecinus’ consular robes with their purple border, and the ivory carvings on his official consular chair, in his imagination Ovid seems almost to be running his fingers over. He cannot get enough of the city of Rome, and cannot get too close to it.

But the poem to Graecinus may be the very last poem that Ovid ever wrote. This Roman is never going to set eyes on Rome again.

Horace on living

A rapid post, this, and topical in a way I wouldn’t have chosen.

I love the Latin language. I struggle to explain why. Something to do with its brevity, and the scope an inflected language gives to shift words around for maximum effect.

No Roman poet exploited these inherent characteristics of Latin more effectively than Horace, and a poem like Horace, Odes 3.29 has it all for me, and not just for me: formal beauty allied to profound ethical truths. I like this poem so much that when I fell over an inscription of a line of it at a charity auction once, I parted with rather a lot of money. Latin and stone go so well together.


There is so much that’s great about 3.29: the way Horace expresses the unpredictability of life through an image of a river in spate, his description flowing river-like from stanza to stanza; the image he uses to express a proper indifference to misfortune: “I wrap myself in my virtue,” he says, mea/ uirtute me inuoluo, as if virtue were a warm and waterproof coat.

But my very favourite thing in 3.29 is a single word, uixi, “I have lived,” at line 43. It is perfectly chosen and perfectly placed, and it represents the key principle of the poem’s philosophy.

Here are the two stanzas around it, with a translation much indebted to David West. Horace is explaining that what matters is the present moment, living life in the here and now. We cannot influence what the future will bring, but if we have lived life to the full when we can, what happens in time to come is of no significance.

… ille potens sui                                                  41
laetusque deget, cui licet in diem
dixisse “uixi.” cras uel atra
nube polum pater occupato

uel sole puro. non tamen irritum                     45
quodcumque retro est efficiet neque
diffinget infectumque reddet
quod fugiens semel hora uexit.

A man will be in control of his life
and happy, if he can say at each day’s end
“I have lived.” Tomorrow Jupiter can
fill the sky with black cloud

or with pure sunlight, but he will not cancel
whatever is behind,
nor reshape or unmake
what once the fleeting hour has brought.

Horace’s poem is written in a verse form called alcaics, a metre in four-line stanzas which Horace had inherited from the archaic Greek poet Alcaeus, but given a character all his own. Horatian alcaics have a very clear dynamic: in broad terms, there are two identical lines followed by a third that slows the flow of the poetry, and a much faster fourth. What creates the impression of drag in the third line is mainly its contrast with the previous two. The first two lines normally have a word break, a pause or caesura, after the fifth syllable, but while the third line starts off as if it is going to follow the same pattern, it then pushes on without a break. The second stanza here is typical: uel sole puro//, quodcumque retrost// in the first two lines, but diffinget infectumque in the third, no break until after the seventh syllable.

In slightly more technical terms, here is an alcaic stanza, with _ marking a long syllable, u marking a short, and // marking the normal/expected location of word breaks:

_ _ u _ _ // _ u u _ u _

_ _ u _ _ // _ u u _ u _

_ _ u _ _ _ u _ _

_ u u _ u u _ u _ _

The things to notice are the identical shape of the first two lines, and the way the third line also begins the same way, but has no break after the fifth syllable. Horace has a habit of placing in the middle of the third line a word needing emphasis, or suiting in other ways this expansive position. Here is an example from earlier in Odes 3.29 (ll. 9-12), where Horace urges Maecenas to abandon his obsession with the city of Rome, and join him for drinkies in the country:

fastidiosam// desere copiam et
molem propinquam// nubibus arduis,
omitte mirari beatae
fumum et opes strepitumque Romae.

Leave behind cloying abundance and
that pile that reaches to the high clouds,
stop admiring
the smoke and riches and racket of wealthy Rome.

In the first two lines there are word breaks after the fifth syllable. The word set in that expansive centre of the third line is mirari, “admire,” “wonder at,” and the placement is very effective: we dwell on Maecenas’ obsession with the city as he indulges his obsession. Meanwhile the frantic fourth line well suits the distracting sensory chaos of the big smoke. Given that practically all of Horace’s alcaic stanzas follow this dynamic of expansive third line and skittery fourth, of course, any exception becomes eye-catching.

At l. 43, dixisse uixi. cras uel atra, there is just such an exception to the rule, and it’s gorgeous. What we have in 43 is a third line that doesn’t expand, but stops short just like the first and second line. The word uixi not only introduces a pause after the fifth syllable, where we don’t expect it, but brings a very strong pause: Horace ends a sentence where we were anticipating continuation. The effect on the word uixi is to underline and isolate it.

I’ve suggested that “I have lived” is the essence of this poem. If you can say this to yourself today, Horace tells us, it simply doesn’t matter what happens tomorrow. I find that a beautiful sentiment in itself, but Horace has made it more beautiful, in the subtlest of ways, by detaching it from the rest of the poetic line by means of that unexpected pause. Vixi, “I have lived,” stands alone. Because there is nothing else that needs to be said.

Charlotte Easton died far too young. I only met her once, though we chatted from time to time on Twitter. She lived life to the full, with her love of cycling, her delight in teaching, her passion for Latin and Greek. If I love Latin, its chiselled clarity, the people I rate highest in the world are those who keep the study of this language I love alive, sharing my enthusiasm for it, but possessed of a precious capacity to communicate the joy of it that I can only wish I had.

Charlotte, uixisti.



I’ve had a busy summer composing an annotated bibliography. It’s a bibliography of Roman poetic metre, and I wrote a book tangential to that topic a few years back (how tangential, I now fully appreciate.) Not the most stimulating activity, it’s fair to say, and if there’s anything better gauged to play on academic insecurities, I can’t think what it is. There is so much I don’t know…

What this exercise has reminded me of, though, is what caught my interest all those years ago, the moments when an ancient poem’s metre is absolutely critical to its meaning. Catullus 11 falls into this category, I believe (I wrote about it here), and Statius’ Silvae 4.3, a poem about a road in which the poet makes it increasingly hard to distinguish road-building and versifying, or so I once argued. Then there was an epigram by Martial, 3.29, composed in a metre called “Sotadean”, quite a rare metre, but one of the most fascinating metrical phenomena that ancient poetry had to offer.

Here is Martial 3.29 in its entirety:

Has cum gemina compede dedicat catenas,
Saturne, tibi Zoïlus, anulos priores.

These chains with their twin fetters are dedicated
to you by Zoïlus, Saturn: the rings he used to wear.

Zoilus is a regular butt of Martial’s abuse, and here we are told that a man who now wears the insignia of high status, gold rings, used to be a slave. True to my topic, though, the Sotadean metre has its own contribution to make. I’ll get to that, eventually…

Greco-Roman metre is governed by quantities, the length of syllables, and Martial’s poem follows the structure of a standard version of the Sotadean ( _ is a long syllable, u a short):

_ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _

Just a pattern of long and short syllables, then. But what makes the Sotadean so interesting is how the ancients responded to this particular pattern. Here is the ancient critic Demetrius (Eloc. 189) describing what happens when a poem is turned from another metre into Sotadeans:

“A composition <is described as affected when it is> anapaestic and like the emasculated, undignified metres, especially the Sotadean because of its rather effeminate rhythm, as in … ‘brandishing the ash spear Pelian right over his shoulder’ in place of ‘brandishing the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder.’ The line seems to have altered its whole shape, like figures in myth who change from males into females.”

A bit of explanation. Demetrius identifies the Sotadean as an especially “effeminate” metre, then quotes by way of illustration two versions of a line from Homer’s Iliad, 22.133: Homer’s original, in the epic metre of dactylic hexameters, and (before that) a reworking of the same line in Sotadeans. Demetrius then records his feelings about what has happened when a line written in hexameter is converted into Sotadean: it is as if it it has metamorphosed from male to female.

Here are the two versions of the line, Sotadean first, then the Homeric original in hexameter:

σείων μελίην Πηλιάδα δεξιὸν κατ’ ὦμον

σείων Πηλιάδα μελίην κατὰ δεξιὸν ὦμον

Both these lines mean “brandishing the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder”, but while the second one scans as a hexameter, _ _ _ u u _ u u _ u u _ u u _ _, the first follows the same scheme as Martial’s poem on Zoïlus, _ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _. This may not look like much to you and me, but to Demetrius that reordering of long and short syllables is weird and unsettling.

The Sotadean version of this line was written by Sotades himself, the Greek poet who invented and lent his name to this metrical length. Very few certain fragments of his work survives. That one is Fragment 4 Powell; in a poem that included Fragment 1 he was so rude about the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus, and the king’s marriage to his own sister Arsinoe, that he was sealed in a lead jar and dropped in the sea, allegedly. In our Fragment 4 he seems to be engaged in “translating” Homer’s Iliad from hexameters to Sotadeans, and we need to ask why.

The first thing to say is that converting hexameters into Sotadeans was quite a popular activity in the ancient world. Quintilian (9.4.90) gives us a Latin hexameter, astra tenet caelum, mare classes, area messem (“Heaven holds the stars, the sea the fleets, the threshing floor the harvest”), which, if you read it backwards, messem area, classes mare, caelum tenet astra, turns into a Sotadean. Similarly, (Demetrius 1.516.29-30 Keil) esse bonus qui uis, cole diuos, optime Pansa (hexameter); Pansa optime, diuos cole, si uis bonus esse (Sotadean), “If you want to be respectable, worship the gods, excellent Pansa”. In the fourth century Optatianus Porfyrius, trick poet par excellence (see Sarah Bond on the remarkable poetic creations of Optatianus here), included “reversible” hexameters/Sotadeans in his Poem 15 in praise of Constantine. William Levitan (reference at the bottom) explains how this poem contains every trick in the box, but this one strongly suggests that Romans of Optatian’s day had lost a sense of what the Sotadean had entailed earlier in antiquity.

I say this because, whatever the truth of the story about his death, Sotades’ poetry was seriously subversive stuff. Strabo gives us the clue when he tells us (Geog. 14.1.41, the same forwards as backwards) that ἦρξε δὲ Σωτάδης μὲν πρῶτος τοῦ κιναιδολογεῖν, “Sotades was the first to write as a cinaedus“, in other words that the main concern of his poetry was to describe what the ancients considered his perverse sex life. A κίναιδος/cinaedus was a man who assumed the passive role in a sex act with another man, behaviour which, according to ancient ethics, was reprehensible and shocking enough to exclude him from the category of true men.

This starts to explain Sotades’ interest in dactylic hexameters. If the Sotadean was the metre of the cinaedus, the hexameter represented its polar opposite: it was known as the “heroic” metre (herous in Latin, τὸ ἡρωικόν in Greek), the vehicle for epic and its praise of Great Men, models of normative masculinity. Varro expressed the relationship snappily: ᾿Αχιλλέως ἡρωικός, ἰωνικὸς κιναίδου (Men. Sat. 360 Cèbe), “the heroic hexameter is the metre of Achilles, and the ionic (the class to which the Sotadean belongs) is that of the cinaedus.” When Sotades converted hexameters into Sotadeans, and epic moments into cinaedic, what might seem to us a very intellectual exercise, transposition from one metre to another, amounts to an assault on the sexual mores of the ancient world. And as any Classicist can tell you, from their sexual ethics flowed much that was fundamental to Greco-Roman society.

Perhaps I don’t need to explain that the line of Homer changes more than its shape when it is converted into Sotadeans. Homer is describing the spear of Achilles, the massive ash-hewn weapon that is his defining accessory: when Patroclus dresses in Achilles’ armour in Iliad 16, the spear of Achilles is the one thing he does not (because he cannot) borrow (“Only the spear of the peerless son of Aeacus he did not take,/ the spear heavy and huge and strong; none other of the Achaeans could/ wield it, but Achilles alone was skilled to wield it,/ the Pelian spear of ash, that Cheiron had given to his dear father/ from the peak of Pelion, to be slaughter for heroes,” 16.140-144). This spear defines Achilles, in other words. It is the essence of his heroic character.

Well, what can I say? The long thin appendage in Sotades’ version of the line is not a spear, that’s for certain.

Turning back to Martial, there’s something broadly similar going on. The poem is presented as a dedicatory epigram, and that had a proper form closely related to the hexameter, the elegiac couplet consisting of a dactylic hexameter followed by a dactylic pentameter. Martial’s poem, converting elegiacs into Sotadeans, subverts the respectable act of dedication just as Sotades had the noble arms of Achilles, implying that Zoïlus and his dedication are morally corrupt, that he is sexually perverted, indeed that Zoïlus’ very rise in Roman society proves that society’s decadence (dedicating his fetters to Saturn, the Lord of Misrule, is an telling detail, too).

In so many ways, a deeply unpleasant poem, Martial 3.29, but one that gets much of its force from associating its target  with  _ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _ . For the ancients, that was metrical code for utter depravity.

C. Connors, Petronius the poet: verse and literary tradition in the Satyricon (Cambridge, 1998), 30-31;

W. Levitan, “Dancing at the end of the rope: Optatian Porfyry and the field of Roman verse,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 115 (1985), 245-69;

Ll. Morgan, Musa Pedestris (2010), 40-48;

R. Pretagostini, Ricerche sulla poesia alessandrina: Teocrito, Callimaco, Sotade (Rome, 1984), 139-47.


A coin & a coup


In a new departure, a topical blog. In another new departure, a short one.

Here is a BBC article discussing the efforts of the Turkish coup plotters to seize control of the media. In a very contemporary twist, as they tried to secure TV networks and newspapers, etc., President Erdogan used his iPhone to make a critical intervention, phoning (and via FaceTime, physically appearing) on CNN. It’s still a confusing picture: Twitter and Facebook may have been blocked by the government, presumably to prevent the coup leaders from getting their message across, but other social networks, WhatsApp, Periscope, weren’t. All in all, it tells us how very difficult it is in 2016 to secure comprehensive control of information outlets, but also how crucial it remains to try to achieve that control if you have plans to usurp political authority.

In AD 271 there was a military coup somewhere on the Rhine frontier of the Roman Empire, and the evidence we have about it also suggests an attempt to control the media. The effect of the coup was to bring to power an emperor named Domitianus, or rather what our evidence tells us is that Domitianus claimed to be emperor, and as we know from Turkey, claims to be in control do not automatically amount to real control. Our evidence about Domitianus is simply this: there are coins bearing an image of him with the imperial motto around his head “IMP(ERATOR) C DOMITIANUS P(IUS) F(ELIX) AUG(USTUS).

The coins indicating that Domitianus was emperor also intimate that he wasn’t emperor for awfully long. In total only two examples of Domitianus coins have ever been found, one found during agricultural work in a vineyard near Nantes in 1900, and another found by a metal detectorist in 2003 at Chalgrove near Oxford. They are so rare that between the discovery of the first and the second coins, effective efforts were made to prove that the French example was a hoax. By this stage of the third century AD coins were being minted in massive quantities: if ever you find a Roman coin, it is very likely to be from this time. There are also lots of coin hoards from what was a very unstable period. Yet Domitianus features in just two of them. At Mildenhall in Wiltshire in 1978 a hoard of 55,000 “radiates” (as Domitianus’ style of coin is called) was found; at Normanby in Lincolnshire in 1985, 48,000 more of them: not a single Domitianus in sight. Even in the comparatively modest Chalgrove hoard, the Domitianus is one of nearly 5,000 coins in total.

Some historical context. Rome in the second half of the third century AD was in crisis. The emperor Valerian had been captured by the Persians in 260, a huge shock to the Empire. In the same year the Western Empire, Spain, Gaul, Germany and Britain, seceded under a rebel general named Postumus, and remained independent of Rome until 274, although Postumus’ successors ruled over a progressively smaller chunk of territory. Domitianus fits in after Postumus’ third successor Victorinus (269-71): plausibly Domitianus was involved in the putsch that removed Victorinus, seized control for a few days, and was then himself dispatched by Tetricus, who ruled the “Gallic Empire” until defeat by Aurelian in 274. Aurelian was the great reunifier of the Empire, bringing Zenobia’s Palmyra back into the fold as well. I hope that wasn’t too difficult to follow, but imagine living it.

About Domitianus himself we know practically nothing. Aside from the coins, there are scattered references in our sources to a general and a rebel by this name. To repeat, though, only the coins proclaim him emperor. Only the statement read out under pressure by the anchor on State TV TRT claimed the success of the Turkish coup, too. The point of similarity is what it takes in 2016, and what it takes in 271, to control the narrative. In the third century there was no TV, no mass media at all, but there was one medium which in its way did the same job of insinuating a message across the army and wider population. Coinage carrying the emperor’s image, and potentially other information too, could be used to communicate a claim to power. The other side of Domitianus’ coin carries an image of peace and plenty (a female figure carrying a libation bowl and cornucopia) and the legend CONCORDIA MILITUM, “Agreement among the Soldiers”, a more explicit claim of authority over the (crucial) armed forces.

So the equivalent of occupying the CNN offices in the third century was to secure the Royal Mint, and it looks like this was Domitianus’ first, and perhaps his only, act in pursuit of power. The evidence of the coins (the French and English examples are identical) seems to be that, while Domitianus managed to secure control of one of the Gallic Empire’s mints, in Cologne, he never controlled the principal mint in Trier. Trier, Augusta Treverorum, was Domitianus’s nemesis, or maybe his iPhone.

The coin of Domitianus found near Oxford is a rather unimpressive thing in the flesh, small and muddy-green, but it’s beautifully presented in the money gallery of the Ashmolean Museum, which is worth a visit for all kinds of other reasons.


Sylviane Estiot & Gildas Salaün, “L’usurpateur Domitianus”, Revue numismatique 160 (2004), 201-218.

Richard Abdy, “The Domitian II coin from Chalgrove: a Gallic emperor returns to history”, Antiquity 83 (2009), 751-757.