I may, with a bit of luck, be in the process of arranging to write a Very Short Introduction to Ovid, and I’ve been thinking hard about the structure of a book that has to encapsulate a lot of texts, and the most scintillating of authors, in a “very short” format. In particular, how to capture Ovid’s afterlife, the huge impact he has had on more recent literature and art, is a poser. I’m pondering at this stage a chronological approach, the “aetas Ovidiana” of the 12th and 13th Century followed by the Renaissance followed by modernity, perhaps. But I still need to decide how to do all that in just a few thousand words.
Well, here’s an Ovidian motif with a medieval afterlife, in one case surprising and hard to explain; while in the other, I think, Ovid meets his medieval match. Amores 2.4 sees Ovid deploring his own mendosi mores, his reprehensible character and lifestyle: there is no woman in Rome he doesn’t fancy, as he explains at some length and in some detail: nam desunt vires ad me mihi iusque regendum;/auferor ut rapida concita puppis aqua./non est certa meos quae forma invitet amores—/centum sunt causae, cur ego semper amem (7-10), “I haven’t the strength or will to control myself;/ I am swept away like a ship driven by fast-moving water./ There is no particular beauty that provokes my love:/ I have a hundred reasons to be constantly in love!”
One such irresistible reason, at 31-2, is a woman who dances seductively: ut taceam de me, qui causa tangor ab omni,/illic Hippolytum pone, Priapus erit! “To say nothing of me, as I am affected by everything,/ put Hippolytus in my place and he’ll turn into Priapus!”
It is a very naughty, very brilliant example of the wit that Ovid is famous for; not perhaps easily defensible in the current day and age. Hippolytus is the archetype of sexual self-restraint, as seen in Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus and various Phaedras; while Priapus looks like this:
Priapus was a kind of over-sexed scarecrow, associated with gardens and orchards: his physical appearance represented an implicit threat to anyone rash enough to try to steal the fruit he protected.
This makes what follows odd, to say the least. In around the thirteenth century someone in Constantinople translated Ovid’s erotic poems, the Amores, Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris, into Greek. The translator may well have been the most famous Byzantine translator of Latin poetry, Maximus Planudes, monk and humanist, best known for his anthology of Greek epigrams: Planudes’ translation activities tend to be associated with the movement to unite the eastern and western Churches, itself related to the hope that help might be forthcoming from the Christian West to defend the city against the Muslim Turks. We do not any longer have that original Greek translation, but we do have excerpts from it in a kind of commonplace book containing morally improving excerpts from a range of ancient authors. The notion of Ovid as morally improving would strike the emperor Augustus as odd, for starters, but the excerptor does generally, sometimes by quite extreme means, manage to keep it clean. Amor, “love”, is translated as τόδε τὸ πρᾶγμα, “this topic”, the puella, the target of sexual interest, becomes an inoffensive φίλος, “(male) friend,” and oscula ferre, “kiss,” turns into προσειπεῖν, “talk to.” E. J. Kenney, to whose article (“A Byzantine version of Ovid,” Hermes 91 (1963), 213-27) I owe these examples, comments: “always at the elbow of this medieval Podsnap [the excerptor] was the spectre of the Young Person. Just as his brethren of the West allegorised Ovid to make him respectable, so this Greek monk, as he must have been, proceeded to purge Ovid of his regrettable lasciviousness by drastic methods” (225).
Sometimes, though, it appears that the excerptor-monk lost concentration, and Amores 2.4.32 is a case in point: most unexpectedly, we find illic Hippolytum pone, Priapus erit literally translated into Greek for the edification of those Byzantine schoolboys: ἐκεῖσε θὲς τὸν Ἱππόλυτον, καὶ Πρίαπος ἔσται. A shocking dereliction on the part of the monk in question, as I hardly need to emphasise.
Over in Western Europe there were indeed comparable efforts to make Ovid respectable, often involving the allegorizing of the myths of the Metamorphoses. But another approach was taken by the Archpoet, an anonymous poet whose pseudonym was apparently derived from his patron, Rainald of Dassel, both Archbishop of Cologne and Archchancellor of Italy. The Archpoet’s masterpiece, his “Confession”, is perhaps the most famous of medieval Latin lyrics, and it’s directly inspired by Ovid, Amores 2.4.
The poem can be dated to 1162 or more likely late 1163, when Rainald, a close adviser of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa as well as a promoter of classical learning, spent time in the north Italian city of Pavia during an embassy to the Pope: Pavia, as we shall see, is where the Archpoet implies that he is delivering his confession. Picking up on Ovid’s word confiteor (3), “I confess,” a word that Christianity had vastly enriched in meaning, the Archpoet delivers a textbook Christian confession: “confession, contrition, purpose of amendment, imposition of penance, and absolution” (Walsh, Thirty poems from the Carmina Burana, 67; cf. H. Watenphul/H. Krefeld, Die Gedichte des Archipoeta, 139). Everything has changed in Latin poetry: the lines are short and rhymed, the rhythms simplified and accentual, the Old and New Testaments compete with Ovid as the target of allusion. Yet somehow, at least for as long as the Archpoet is confessing his sins, the essence of Ovid has been successfully transplanted to the Holy Roman Empire (2-3):
Cum sit enim proprium viro sapienti
supra petram ponere sedem fundamenti,
stultus ego comparor fluvio labenti
sub eodem aere nunquam permanenti.
Feror ego veluti sine nauta navis,
ut per vias aeris vaga fertur avis.
non me tenent vincula, non me tenet clavis,
quero mei similes et adiungor pravis.
For though it be proper for a wise man
To set his foundations upon a rock,
I in my idiocy am like a flowing river
Never staying still under the same sky.
I am borne along like a sailor without a ship
As a wandering bird is carried through the paths of the air.
Chains do not hold me, nor a key:
I seek like-minded people, and my friends are the depraved.
There are striking parallels between the classical and medieval poet: both are manipulating some well-established and highly artificial poetic conventions, the goliardic persona of the morally wayward vagabond in the Archpoet’s case, and the morally dubious elegiac lover in Ovid’s; important to both also is a claim to youth, and the irresponsibility stereotypically associated with it. In addition, each poet is deploying a verse form that embodies their assumed persona, the trochaic Vagantenstrophe or goliardic measure in the Confession, and the elegiac couplet in Ovid’s Amores.
But it’s Hippolytus we are concerned with, and the Archpoet’s answer to Ovid’s Hippolytus/Priapus witticism brilliantly exploits the city in which he finds himself. Pavia had a dubious reputation, according to a proverb quoted by Landulf of Milan in his Historia Mediolanensis (3.1): Mediolanum in clericis, Papia in deliciis, Roma in aedificiis, Ravenna in ecclesiis, “Milan for clerics, Pavia for pleasures, Rome for buildings, Ravenna for churches.” Or as the Archpoet puts it (8-9),
Quis in igne positus igne non uratur?
quis Papie demorans castus habeatur,
ubi Venus digito iuvenes venatur,
oculis illaqueat, facie predatur?
Si ponas Ypolitum hodie Papie,
non erit Ypolitus in sequenti die:
Veneris in thalamos ducunt omnes vie;
non est in tot turribus turris Alethie.
Who when placed in the fire is not burned?
Who spending time in Pavia may be considered chaste
where Venus hunts young men with her finger,
traps them with her eyes, ensnaring them with her face?
Place Hippolytus in Pavia today,
He won’t be Hippolytus tomorrow:
all roads lead to the bedchambers of Venus;
Amongs all those towers there is no tower of Truth.
(Pavia was famous, as S. Gimignano is today, for its towers.)
An unfortunate colleague of mine met me on the airport bus over the summer. I was off to Cartagena for a jolly, and he to Pavia to give a paper. When I did what I felt compelled to do and warned him of the threat to his immortal soul posed by that city, he told me I was the second Classicist in a week to quote the Archpoet’s couplet at him when he mentioned where he was going.
But how could I resist? In Si ponas Ypolitum hodie Papie/ non erit Ypolitus in sequenti die the Archpoet fulfilled his boast at 18.4: Nasonem post calicem carmine preibo, “After a glass I shall surpass Naso in song.” But he surpasses Ovid in a more profound sense too, perhaps. Some scholars doubt the genuineness of the contrition that the poet-persona claims to feel at the end of this confession, feeling that his vices have been recounted with too much gusto for us really to accept that (23) iam virtutes diligo, vitiis irascor,/ renovatus animo spritu renascor;/ quasi modo genitus novo lacte pascor,/ ne sit meum amplius vanitatis vas cor, “Now I love virtues and loathe vices,/ renewed in the mind I am reborn in the spirit;/ like a new-born I feed on fresh milk:/ may my heart no longer be a vessel of vanity.” “The main body of the Confession is more of a defense than a confession,” suggests S. Shurtleff. But I suppose it seems to me that one cannot adequately repent one’s sins without first fully acknowledging them; and anyway that’s to take the exercise a bit too literally. Certainly, as the poet promises to reform, classical allusion gives way exclusively to scriptural. The Latin model is entirely replaced by the biblical.
Are we focusing too much on the Ovidian sins the Archpoet admits to, then, and too little on his remorse? Is this in fact the most important respect in which the Archpoet has improved on Ovid, by capping the unresolved immorality of the pagan Roman with the Christian promise of redemption?
Some things I’ve been reading:
P. G. Walsh, Thirty poems from the Carmina Burana (1976);
H. Watenphul/H. Krefeld, Die Gedichte des Archipoeta (1958);
E. J. Kenney, “A Byzantine version of Ovid,” Hermes 91 (1963), 213-27;
P. Godman, The Archpoet and Medieval Culture (2014);
K. Langosch, Die Lieder des Archipoeta (1965);
F. Adcock, Hugh Primas and the Archpoet (1994), with an introduction by P. Dronke;
P. Dronke, “The Archpoet and the Classics,” in P. Dronke, Sources of Inspiration (1997), 83-99;
J. Hamacher, “Die ‘Vagantenbeichte’ und ihre Quellen,” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 18 (1983), 160-7;
S. B. Kugeas, “Maximos Planudes und Juvenal,” Philologus 73 (1914), 318-319;
J. Herrin, Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire (2007);
S. Shurtleff, “The Archpoet as poet, persona and self: the problem of individuality in the Confession,” Philological Quarterly 73 (1994), 373-84.
Way back last October I was helping Mary Beard and Peter Stothard introduce Virgil’s 9th Eclogue at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, gamely claiming that it was the best poem ever written. I’d still insist it was one of the very best Latin poems ever written, at least, up there with Odes 3.29.
What makes Eclogue 9 so great, to my mind (and in a couple of sentences), is that it takes the conventions of pastoral poetry and essentially shreds them. Pastoral (also known as bucolic) is a peculiar but very resilient genre of poetry. It describes a world populated by idealized herdsmen, living a carefree life in a sympathetic landscape. The Eclogues start off in typical fashion (1.1-3): “You, Tityrus, lie beneath the canopy of a spreading beech,/ and practice your woodland music on slender pipe.” The shade from the midday sun, and especially the song that we are told that Tityrus is singing about his lover Amaryllis, are classic pastoral motifs. But if I give you the whole of the first five lines of Eclogue 1, the nature of Virgil’s project is clearer:
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
siluestrem tenui Musam meditaris auena;
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arua.
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
You, Tityrus, lie beneath the canopy of a spreading beech,
and practice your woodland music on slender pipe;
I am leaving my country’s boundaries and sweet fields.
I am an outcast from my country; you, Tityrus, at ease in the shade
teach the woods to echo “beautiful Amaryllis.”
It is characteristic of Virgil’s pastoral poetry that the blissful scene around Tityrus is set against the dire circumstances affecting the herdsman addressing him, Meliboeus, who has been expelled from his land. This sharpens the appeal of the pastoral dream, but it also betrays its fundamental fragility.
In Eclogue 9 two herdsmen are experiencing the same as Meliboeus in Eclogue 1. Moeris and Lycidas, the latter a younger man, wander through a shattered landscape, dispossessed of their land and unable to do any of the things pastoral characters are supposed to do: they cannot stop, cannot recline under a shady tree, and above all cannot sing. Indeed they cannot any longer remember the songs that they used to sing. In Eclogue 1 and 9, furthermore, the destruction of the pastoral world is associated by Virgil with contemporary events in Italy, especially the land confiscations (to resettle the demobilized troops) that followed the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. These pastoral poems are thus in some respects spectacularly artificial compositions (a lot of the impact of Eclogue 9 derives from its systematic reversal of one poem in particular, the 7th Idyll of the Greek poet Theocritus, his great predecessor in pastoral poetry, for example), but they also offer an urgent commentary on some of the darkest days in Rome’s history, the chaos that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44, in middle of which Virgil was composing these exquisite pastoral poems.
My main job at Cheltenham is to do some close reading: literally reading chunks of the poem out loud in Latin, but also drawing out what I think is most important about the detailed composition of the poetry. Preparing for this–and that includes working out with Mary and Peter what to emphasise (the event is only an hour long)–is excellent discipline: I always end up seeing much more even in very familiar poems than I had before. Occasionally enough to dash off a blog about it…
This time I came away thinking about prosody. Prosody is closely related to metre, in which readers of this blog will know I have a passing interest (here, here, and here, for example). Specifically, prosody concerns how the words of poetry are set in their metrical scheme: what kinds of word are allowed where, what pauses there should be in a line, etc.
One example of a prosodical issue in Eclogue 9 is the “bucolic diaeresis”, a habit of introducing a pause between sense units after the fourth foot of the (six-foot) hexameter line. It doesn’t sound too significant, but it was common in Theocritus’ pastoral poetry and, while less regular in the Eclogues, Virgil seems to reserve it for moments when he wants to evoke a pastoral atmosphere especially strongly: the “bucolic diaeresis” retains its bucolic associations, in other words.
At Eclogue 9.51-4, for instance, Moeris complains that he can’t remember songs any more:
omnia fert aetas, animum quoque; saepe ego longos
cantando puerum memini me condere soles:
nunc oblita mihi tot carmina…
Time takes everything away, the memory too; often I remember
as a boy putting the long days to rest with singing:
now I have forgotten so many songs…
There’s a reminiscence here of a celebrated poem by another Greek poet, Callimachus (translated by Cory), but what interests me is how, as Moeris recalls the days when pastoral was pastoral, when all day could be spent in carefree song, he introduces a “bucolic diaeresis”, the strong sense break between quoque and saepe. The prosody is evoking that long-lost pastoral past in its own right.
Sticking with the “bucolic diaeresis” for a moment, toward the end of the poem Lycidas makes a final desperate effort to persuade Moeris to stop and sing, in other words to recover the pastoral fantasy (9.59-62):
hinc adeo media est nobis uia; namque sepulcrum
incipit apparere Bianoris. hic, ubi densas
agricolae stringunt frondis, hic, Moeri, canamus:
hic haedos depone, tamen ueniemus in urbem.
From here on there is half our journey to go; look, the tomb
of Bianor is coming into sight. Here, where the farmers
are stripping the thick foliage, here, Moeris, let us sing:
put the kids down here; we will reach the City all the same.
Again, Lycidas’ pleas gain extra force by an intensification of the pastoral ambience. The first two lines imitate Theocritus Idyll 7 very closely, but each also has a strong “bucolic diaeresis”, uia || namque and Bianoris || hic. Lycidas is refusing to give up hope, and his prosody reflects that.
Moeris, the disillusioned older man, will have none of it. The poem ends with an abrupt couplet expressing his adamant refusal to sing (66-7):
desine plura, puer, et quod nunc instat agamus.
carmina tum melius, cum uenerit ipse, canemus.
Say no more, boy, and let’s get on with the matter at hand.
We shall sing songs better when the master comes.
(“The master” refers to Menalcas, a poet-figure whose absence from the scene earlier in the poem is a symptom of the disruption in the countryside. His return is a faint hope, one presumes.)
I’m going to focus on another detail of prosody here. In desine plura, puer Virgil does something naughty, introducing a syllable quantity that is strictly illegal. The seven syllables of the phrase should follow the pattern long-short-short long-short-short long, but the -er of puer, “boy,” is a short syllable. Now the rule that Virgil is breaking here is not an absolutely hard-and-fast one, but this is still a very rare license, only occurring when it does in the first syllable of a metrical foot, and normally only (as here) before the main caesura (a conventional pause) of a verse. Virgil will have been aware of similar moments in Homer’s hexameters and in other Greek poets, and sometimes his practice reflects an older pronunciation of the Latin words (syllables short in his day which had once been long). More often, though, and this is the case here with puer, Virgil simply places a short syllable where readers would firmly expect a long syllable to go. The best discussion of Virgil’s practice is in R. G. Austin’s wonderful commentaries on books of the Aeneid, for example his note at Aeneid 4.64 (pectoribus inhians), but Austin’s most important observation is that Virgil was sometimes clearly just exploiting the license for artistic effect: “Whatever the technical explanation of the matter, Virgil’s pleasure in using the device is obvious, and his skill as plain.”
So the question that occurred to me in Cheltenham was why Virgil had introduced a short-weight syllable at the end of desine plura puer.
I think it’s a very subtle, rather beautiful effect rounding off this pretty marvellous poem. In a sense Eclogue 9 is all about silence. The characters struggle, and fail, to remember the songs that are the quintessence of the pastoral pipedream: the pastoral world has lost its all-important music. We should note also that Virgil is coming to the conclusion of his own poetic collection: there is one more poem and the Eclogues will end, and since Virgil has encouraged us to see the Eclogues as themselves pastoral songs, the songs of pastoral figures in their idyllic surroundings (he refers to himself as Menalcas or Tityrus, names of herdsmen, for example, and Virgil’s poetry has a deliberately singsong quality), the fact that Virgil’s poetry falls silent at the end of the collection itself works as a protest against the forces that make the pastoral dream impossible, the civil wars pitting Roman against Roman.
Here Moeris, in the face of their overwhelming misfortunes, demands silence from the ever-optimistic Lycidas: “Say no more, boy.” In the subtlest way possible Virgil underlines that enforced silence, lengthening the pause at the caesura after puer with a syllable that falls ever-so-slightly too short. It might be just that phrase that is enhanced by that extended lack of sound, but desine plura, puer, in the context of a collection of pastoral songs, songs that conjure into existence a bewitching alternative existence, is a devastating statement. Within the poetry we “hear” momentarily the suppression of all poetry.
It is very, very technical stuff, sometimes, Roman poetry. But that can also be when it’s at its most gorgeously expressive.
Just because, here’s a section from the versified survey of metres by Terentianus Maurus, perhaps around A.D. 300, where he describes the bucolic diaeresis, followed by my best effort at an English version, aided by Cignolo’s edition (2002). At 2129-30 Terentianus translates the very beginning of Idyll 1 of Theocritus (“the child of Sicily”) into Latin (the Greek is Ἁδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς, αἰπόλε, τήνα,/ ἁ ποτὶ ταῖς παγαῖσι, μελίσδεται, ἁδὺ δὲ καὶ τύ/ συρίσδες, and both Greek lines have bucolic diaereses); and at 2133-4 he quotes the first two verses of Eclogue 3 of Maro (Virgil), exhibiting a nice opening example in an Meliboei. The “tetrameter” is the first four feet of the six-foot hexameter verse:
pastorale uolet cum quis componere carmen,
tetrametrum absoluat, cui portio demitur ima
quae solido a verbo poterit conectere uersum, 2125
bucolicon siquidem talem uoluere uocari.
plurimus hoc pollet Siculae telluris alumnus:
ne graecum immittam uersum, mutabo latinum,
‘dulce tibi pinus summurmurat, en tibi, pastor,
proxima fonticulis; et tu quoque dulcia pangis.’ 2130
iugiter hanc legem toto prope carmine seruat:
noster rarus eo pastor Maro, sed tamen inquit
‘dic mihi, Damoeta, cuium pecus? an Meliboei?
non, verum Aegonis: nuper mihi tradidit Aegon’.
If anyone wants to write a pastoral poem,
let them round off the tetrameter, to which a final section is lacking
which can complete the verse starting from an unbroken word,
since they have decided that such a verse be called “bucolic”.
A son of Sicily is best known for this:
so as not to introduce a Greek verse, I shall translate into Latin:
“The pine whispers sweetly, look, shepherd,
The one right by the springs; and you too make sweet songs.”
Theocritus observes this rule almost continually throughout his poetry;
for that reason our shepherd Maro, though sparing with it, still says
“‘Tell me, Damoetas, whose is the flock? Meliboeus’s?’
‘No, Aegon’s: Aegon handed it over to me the other day.’”
(Terentianus Maurus, De litteris de syllabis de metris 2123-2134)
Just a curiosity, this, and as much as I can manage at a stupidly busy point in the academic year.
It comes from what is perhaps the closest thing the ancient world had to a blog, the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. Around the middle of the second century A.D., initially during an extended stay in Athens (hence the title), Gellius collected information on topics that interested him, presented in short, self-contained notes on word use, antiquarianism, philosophy–whatever had caught his attention. The twenty books of the Noctes Atticae, all but one still extant, preserve some precious material: something I’ve been writing recently on the Roman priests of Jupiter known as the flamen and flaminica is very dependent on Attic Nights 10.15, for example.
The last note in Book 18 runs like this (NA 18.15):
“In the long lines called hexameters, and likewise in senarii (iambic trimeters), scholars of metrics have observed that the first two feet, and also the last two, may consist each of a single part of speech, but that those between may not, but are always formed of words which are either divided, or combined and run together. Varro in his book On the Arts wrote that he had observed in hexameter verse that the fifth half-foot generally ended a word, and that the first five half-feet had equally great force in the creation of a verse as the following seven; and he argues that this happens in accordance with a certain geometrical ratio.”
(In longis uersibus, qui hexametri uocantur, item in senariis, animaduerterunt metrici primos duos pedes, item extremos duo, habere singulos posse integras partes orationis, medios haut umquam posse, sed constare eos semper ex uerbis aut diuisis aut mixtis atque confusis. M. etiam Varro in libris Disciplinarum scripsit obseruasse sese in uersu hexametro, quod omnimodo quintus semipes uerbum finiret et quod priores quinque semipedes aeque magnam uim haberent in efficiendo uersu atque alii posteriores septem, idque ipsum ratione quadam geometrica fieri disserit.)
The issue here is the metre of epic poetry, the dactylic hexameter, and with less emphasis the iambic trimeter, metre of dialogue in tragedy, both lines consisting of six metrical feet; specifically at issue is where word breaks or caesuras were expected to fall in the verse line. The first sentence is essentially concerned with the convention in both the hexameter and the trimeter that a major word break falls within the third or fourth foot; or to put that another way, the convention that a word break should be avoided between the third and fourth foot, that is, a caesura dividing the line into two exactly equal parts.
The second sentence continues the interest in how a hexameter line was articulated, but takes a peculiar turn. It cites M. Terentius Varro, the celebrated polymath of the first century B.C., noting in his nine-book Disciplinae (maybe in the book on music; maybe in the book on geometry: only fragments of the Disciplinae survive) that the (Latin) hexameter was normally divided into two at a caesura in the middle of the third foot: analysed in terms of half-feet, semipedes, this break divided the line into five half-feet in the first section of the line and seven in the remainder of it. Then the mysterious further observation that although unequal in length, the first part of the line had “an equally great force in creating the line” as the longer second, and that this was in accordance with “a geometrical ratio.”
Varro’s idea is elucidated very deftly by the world expert on Gellius, Leofranc Holford-Strevens,* revisiting an explanation by Henri Weil** in the nineteenth century (online here in German and here in French). The key to understanding Varro is a long account of verse structure in the fifth book of the De Musica of St. Augustine, where it looks very much as if Augustine is following the same passage in Varro as Gellius is citing. It is an essential feature of a verse properly so named, according to Augustine, that it is divided into two unequal, and thus not interchangeable, parts. This characteristic of a verse is inherent in its very name, he claims: uersus, quia uerti non potest, “It is called a verse, because it cannot be reversed.” Considered more closely, however, these superficially unequal parts of the hexameter and the trimeter turn out to share “an amazing equivalence,” aequalitas mirabilis (De Musica 5.12.26). This hidden balance is revealed by mathematics: if the seven parts of the longer section of the line are further subdivided into three and four half-feet, the sum of the squares of 3 and 4 (9 + 16) equals the square of the five parts of the shorter section, 25. Augustine thus seems to be giving us what is unstated in Gellius: “the first five half-feet have equally great force in making a verse as the following seven,” and this is so in accordance with a “a certain geometrical ratio.” At this more esoteric level, the unequal components of the hexameter line in fact prove to be equal.
This is a fascinating line of thinking, but (it hardly needs saying) thoroughly unhinged. It isn’t entirely certain that Augustine’s idea can be blamed on Varro. It suits Augustine’s project in the De Musica as elsewhere, “to demonstrate the presence of an organizing principle functioning in every aspect of reality,”*** very closely indeed, after all: even by studying poetic metre we can rise from the disorder of the corporeal realm to the perfection of the spiritual. But we also have Gellius’ heading for this chapter, which seems to characterise Varro’s original observation as highly peculiar: Quod M. Varro in herois versibus observaverit rem nimis anxiae et curiosae observationis, “That Marcus Varro noted in heroic verses something requiring excessively anguished and painstaking observation.” That does sound like Varro also was dealing in squares. It’s also not obvious what else Varro could have meant by “a geometrical ratio,” or at any rate what he could have meant that would have drawn this interest (and this heading) from Gellius.
But what does any of this matter? Not a lot, for sure. But let’s assume that Varro did believe that the hexameter, in particular, metre of the highest poetic forms, possessed this remarkable character, that beyond its superficial imbalance it embodied a near-mystical perfection. Varro’s voice was an influential one, and not only on later figures like Gellius and Augustine. So we can’t exclude the possibility that Virgil, for example, a younger contemporary of Varro, when he described Dido, Queen of Carthage, in a hexameter of perfect elegance, regina ad templum, forma pulcherrima Dido (Aeneid 1.496), the line disposed into two parts of five and seven half-feet, felt that he was wielding a metrical form that was itself of ineffable beauty.
*L. Holford-Strevens, “Parva Gelliana,” Classical Quarterly 44 (1994), 480-89, at 483-6;
**H. Weil, “Die neuesten Schriften über griechischen Rhythmik,” Jahrbücher für classische Philologie 8 (1862), 333-51, at 336-7; idem, Études de littérature et de rythmique grecques (Paris, 1902), 142-4;
***P. d’Alessandro, Varrone e la tradizione metrica antica (Hildesheim, 2012), 101-146, at 132.
Early in the summer a retired colleague said something to me I’ve struggled to forget since. She was describing all the heavy responsibilities she found herself bearing, out of the goodness of her heart, for aged friends and loved ones, and she concluded: “Don’t get old, Llewelyn.” It caught me at a slightly low ebb, suffering from something it’s taken the summer to work out is nothing significant, well, nothing more than one of those skeleto-muscular reminders that time is remorseless. Hence the disproportionate impact of a passing remark, no doubt, anyhow.
I am now in my fiftieth year, and to a Latinist one thing that means is that I’m roughly the same age as Horace when he wrote his fourth book of lyric poems, the Odes. If our comparable ages matter at all, it’s because age matters to Horace. His poetry is not in any straightforward way autobiographical, but he did construct a kind of parallel biography out of his poetry, matching the sequence of poetic genres he undertook to the stage of life at which he was writing, aggressive iambic and satirical poetry in his younger days, detached epistolary musings in his dotage. It was in middle age that Horace wrote the Odes (Horace was born in 65BC; Odes Books 1-3 were apparently published as a collection in 23BC), and again lyric was an age-appropriate choice. The male lyric voice is quite precisely defined in this respect: he’s not as young as he was, he’s seen a bit of the world and is wise to it (though perfectly capable of losing his head, just quicker to regain it than his younger self), but above all he’s sensitive to his years, regretful of the passing of time and acutely aware of his mortality.
The persona Horace adopts in Odes 1-3 is all of those things. Already in these books Horace spends a lot of time contemplating his inevitable death and pursuing activities to mitigate that gloomy prognosis, mainly involving alcohol and serial monogamy. His most famous motto, carpe diem, means “pick the day”, as if the day is an apple that you must pluck and eat while you still can–and who knows how long that will be? In its original context in Odes 1.11 Horace has one particular activity in mind for himself and the young woman, Leuconoe, to whom this advice is directed, and it isn’t a game of monopoly.
Between Odes 1-3 and Odes 4 there was a gap of as many as ten years. The date of Book 4 is disputed, but Horace himself gives his age as circa lustra decem at 4.1.6, “around fifty,” and in-between times he’d written a book of meditative Epistles as well as a long hymn for Augustus’ Secular Games in 17BC. We’re presumably around 14BC. The same lyric themes of the rapid passage of time, the unpredictable future and imminent mortality are found in the later book, but if time was an issue already in 1-3 (as it must be in any lyric poetry), it’s an urgent one in 4, a book deeply conscious that its author is too old to be writing it. The book opens with Horace insisting he’s past it (3-4, non sum qualis eram bonae/ sub regno Cinarae, “I’m not the man I was when good Cinara ruled my life”): Venus should leave him alone and pick on young men like Paullus Maximus. At the end of 4.11 he calls a definitive end to love affairs (29-36), which implies, as in 4.1, a farewell to lyric poetry: age iam, meorum/ finis amorum/ (non enim posthac alia calebo/ femina), condisce modos, amanda/ voce quos reddas; minuentur atrae/ carmine curae, “Come now, last of my loves (for after this I shall feel no passion for any other woman), learn some tunes to sing with your lovely voice. Black anxieties will be lessened by song.” When the lyric song is over, an implication is, there will be nothing to distract him from those anxieties.
There is another poem in Book 4 that’s all about age, Odes 4.13, but in this case the subject is not (or maybe, not directly) Horace. It’s also the most troubling poem of the book to read, a brutal, vengeful celebration that a woman he once loved, Lyce, is getting old. That, at any rate, is where it starts (David West’s translation after the Latin):
audiuere, Lyce, di mea uota, di
audiuere, Lyce: fis anus, et tamen
uis formosa videri
ludisque et bibis impudens
et cantu tremulo pota Cupidinem
lentum sollicitas. ille uirentis et
doctae psallere Chiae
pulchris excubat in genis.
importunus enim transuolat aridas
quercus et refugit te quia luridi
dentes, te quia rugae
turpant et capitis niues.
nec Coae referunt iam tibi purpurae
nec cari lapides tempora, quae semel
notis condita fastis
inclusit uolucris dies.
quo fugit Venus, heu, quoue color, decens
quo motus? quid habes illius, illius,
quae spirabat amores,
quae me surpuerat mihi,
felix post Cinaram notaque et artium
gratarum facies? sed Cinarae brevis
annos fata dederunt,
seruatura diu parem
cornicis uetulae temporibus Lycen,
possent ut iuuenes uisere feruidi
multo non sine risu
dilapsam in cineres facem.
The gods have listened, Lyce, the gods have listened
to my prayers; you’re becoming an old woman
and you still want to be thought beautiful,
you still play about and you drink too much,
and sing in your cups in that wobbling voice of yours
to rouse the sluggish god of love, but he is out
for the night, on duty on the lovely cheeks
of a young Chian lyre-player.
That demanding god soars over dry oaks.
He flies away from you, your black teeth,
your wrinkles, and the snow
in your hair. You are ugly.
Neither Coan purples nor precious stones
bring back the time
buried in old calendars
by the swiftly flying days.
Where has your charm gone? Where is your complexion?
Where is that lovely way of moving? What remains
of the girl who breathed the breath of love,
who stole me from myself,
the girl I so loved after Cinara, and where is
that artful beauty of yours I knew so well? But the Fates,
who did not give Cinara many years,
were to keep you alive
as long as any ancient crow, to raise
a laugh among hot-blooded young men
as they see your torch
crumbling into ashes.
This is Roman literature at its most indigestible. A man assesses a mature woman on her looks, and judges her worthless by virtue of his own failure to find her attractive. What interests me about this poem, though, is the possibility that in as limited a way as a Roman male could manage, Horace evinces some awareness of this imbalance. There’s a hint of that, nothing more, in the shift of tone in the fourth stanza from the vindictive opening to something (slightly) closer to empathy, a general principle that the past is irrevocably the past followed by Horace’s expression of his own dismay at Lyce’s aging, a very different response, at least, from the triumphant taunts he started with. But the conclusion is again merciless: the young men laugh at her; she is a torch that has burnt itself out; she would have done better to die before she lost her looks, like Cinara.
But if I can try to recall my reaction on first reading this poem, it was to be appalled by Horace’s nastiness, but also left with a sense that there was an unavoidable further implication. I can’t personally read this repulsive poem without the rest of Odes 4 in my head, a book preoccupied with aging, as we’ve seen, and first and foremost with the aging of the author. If Lyce is getting old, Horace must be older; if she is too long in the tooth for this game, Horace has already told us he is too. “I am not the man I was when good Cinara ruled my life,” he says in the first poem of the book; here he reminds us of Cinara, and cannot help but remind us in the process that if anyone’s obsolescent, it’s Horace himself. On the matter of names, “Lyce” carries its own associations: we’ve met her just once before, in Odes 3.10, a poem in which the poet ultimately claims to be too old to take love affairs too seriously, or even to be physically equal to them. This at any rate, for what it’s worth, is how I feel compelled to read Odes 4.13: the brutality of it is shocking, but it’s also self-directed, self-eviscerating. There’s every chance I’m indulging the old misogynist, but if I’m not, the loathing he directs at Lyce entails self-loathing: every nasty jibe Horace makes about Lyce drives home, in turn, how old he is, how decrepit, how close to death.
Horace didn’t get old, or not by our standards: he died just a few years later in 8BC, at 56.
There’s a very nice article on this poem, and some similar ones in the Odes and Epodes, by Carol Esler in T. M. Falkner & J. de Luce, Old Age in Greek and Latin Literature (1989), 172-82. David West’s essays on the Odes in his translation/commentaries are always eye-opening (the one on 3.10, for example, I lean on here).
Sometime in the sixteenth century an exciting discovery was made in Tivoli: a bronze tablet bearing an inscription (CIL I².586), and with it a Roman portrait bust in marble (above). They were found in the vicinity of the Cathedral of S. Lorenzo, itself located on the site of the Roman-era forum of ancient Tibur. The inscription recorded a letter from a Roman magistrate, L. Cornelius Cn. f., a praetor, in which he communicated to the people of Tibur that the Roman Senate had accepted their explanation of something or other that had brought suspicion of wrongdoing upon the town.
Evidently the people of Tibur displayed this message in a public venue, and contemporaries of the find in the sixteenth century concluded that the bust and the inscription went together. In other words, the statue represented the Roman magistrate who had taken their submission to the Roman Senate, and reported back to them the positive outcome: it was an image of L. Cornelius the praetor.
But as I rapidly discovered, there is very little about this discovery that isn’t controversial. The identity of the Roman praetor in question, Lucius Cornelius son of Gnaeus Cornelius, is one bone of contention, but a strong contender (and I have some heavyweight German historians on my side here: details are in CIL) is L. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus, an interesting figure to say the least. Another contentious issue is whether the inscription and bust are really related to each other, and while the accounts of the discovery suggest they are, there’s no proof that the sculpture represents the praetor, and Paul Zanker, for example, is adamant that the hair and the facial rendering of the bust (as represented in the image at the top) prove that it is of a much later, imperial date.
What happened to these artefacts after their discovery is what I’ve spent the last few days investigating. But it might first be worth explaining what possible interest I could have in this praetor and his dealings with the people of Tibur.
If this L. Cornelius is indeed one and the same as L. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus (and you’ll have gathered that more or less everything in this blog is prefaced by “if”), we know a little more about him and his remarkably uneven political career. He was praetor, and thus (potentially) dealing with the Tiburtines, in around 159 BC, then consul in 156, censor in 147, and in the last years of his life princeps senatus. The latter was a position of great prestige, but Lupus held it (and the censorship, an even more prestigious role) despite the fact that he had been convicted of extortion for his behaviour as a provincial governor after his consulship. Not unrelatedly, Lupus also had the dubious honour of a starring role in a very celebrated poem, a satire by C. Lucilius which excoriated Rome for allowing such an unfit character to rise to such prominence.
Lucilius’ satire against Lupus is now a collection of fragments, but it described an assembly of the gods; it was apparently a parody of a divine council in Book 1 of Ennius’ Annals which decided noble things like Romulus’ deification and the foundation of Rome. Lucilius’ council also discussed the future of Rome, but in a much less positive way, apparently including the option of destroying it, and in place of Romulus had Lupus, a man who encapsulated everything that had gone wrong with Rome in Lucilius’ day, its corruption, injustice and (worst of all) its Greekness. After discussion of Rome’s decadence and Lupus’ vices, the gods decided that Lupus must die: Lucilius was obviously writing the satire after Lupus’ actual death in 126/5 BC. There is much we can’t know about Lucilius’ satire, but its aggressive tone emerges from the comments of later Roman satirists. “Lucilius sliced up the city,” wrote Persius, “you, Lupus, you, Mucius, and broke his jaw on them” (1.114-115). (Q. Mucius Scaevola was another victim of Lucilius’ satire.) Horace describes Lupus as “smothered by libellous verses” (Sat. 2.1.68), and “smothered” is cooperto, the Latin verb suggesting death by stoning: Lucilius’ verses against Lupus are like rocks being hurled at him.
Not just any old villain, then: C. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus was the very embodiment of Rome’s decline. He had another kind of legacy, too. Seneca’s remarkable satire on the death and punishment of the emperor Claudius, the Apocolocyntosis, owes a lot to Lucilius’ poem, essentially doing to Claudius what Lucilius had done to Lupus. It’s also no coincidence that early in Ovid’s Metamorphoses a divine assembly discusses the future of mankind and a particular malefactor called Lycaon, like Lupus a character with a name (Greek lukos as in lycanthrope) that associated him with wolves, subhuman, proverbially savage creatures.
Later Roman satirists, Horace, Persius and Juvenal, regarded Lucilius as the pioneer of their genre, and those Roman satirists, in turn, were the models for a long tradition of English verse satire. The satire against Lupus, in Book 1 of Lucilius’ satires, was thus a formative moment in the development of this strange but resilient poetic form.
Well, for all these reasons, when I read in the big German encyclopedia that a likeness of Lupus might have survived, it had my attention.
What it told me was that the bust was now in Norfolk. During his Grand Tour from 1712 to 1718, the young Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester and builder of the splendid Holkham Hall, collected, along with a number of other items of ancient statuary, a male portrait claimed to be the one dug up in Tivoli. The image at the top of this post is the Tivoli image as drawn in the sixteenth century by Theodoor Galle, latinized as Gallaeus (p.50 here), while the Holkham marble looks like this. I am convinced they are not the same, and art historical scholarship on the Holkham bust is with me. Michaelis manages to persuade himself they are identical (“To say nothing of the likeness of the features…”), but in an additional note records others’ doubts, while E. Angelicoussis in a very beautiful volume, The Holkham Collection of Classical Sculptures (2001), says on p. 26 that “the Holkham marble bears a very close resemblance to the Gallaeus illustration” and on p.116 that “the [Gallaeus] portrait bears no real resemblance to the Holkham marble.” She is clear, nevertheless, that the statues are not the same, as is Paul Zanker: “Two quite different individuals are represented.” It seems pretty obvious that the Holkham statue represents the emperor Nerva, too. Now, there is no doubt that Coke was told, and believed, that this was L. Cornelius Cn. f. praetor, from Tivoli. But Thomas Coke was not so much sold a Lupus as a pup.
So what did happen to the bust, if it didn’t go to adorn Holkham Hall? Let me share with you the research of a week when I was supposed to be on holiday. Both the bust and the inscription came into the possession of Fulvio Orsini, a humanist and major collector of antiquities, and while in his collection it was drawn by Galle/Gallaeus. Here in a later edition of Gallaeus’ images, accompanied by the annotations of Johannes Faber, it is identified as an image of Lupus. Before it came into Orsini’s possession, apparently, it was recorded in a collection of images of busts in Rome compiled by Antonio Lafrery: at least I’m pretty certain this is the same statue (below). In Orsini’s will in 1600 the bust and the inscription were bequeathed “to the Senate and People of Rome”, with a request that they be held in the Capitoline Museum, “preferably in the place where the bronze head of Brutus is today preserved,” a sign of how valuable Orsini considered these artefacts to be.
Does anyone recognise this man?
The inscription never made it to the Capitoline, passing into the hands of Cardinal Farnese, and later to the Barberini collection, and later still disappearing completely. The marble bust did make it that far, at least: it is recorded in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline in 1663 and periodically thereafter, for example by Platner in 1837. Michaelis provides more detail, but he is also right to point out that the bust Platner describes doesn’t sound much like ours. In fact it seems that by the nineteenth century the original statue had gone missing, stolen in effect, but not by Thomas Coke in Norfolk, as Michaelis believed. Where it did go and where it is now, if it survives at all, is anybody’s guess. False trails this last week have led me to the Uffizi in Florence, but the bust claimed to be the image in Lafrery is nothing like it; and to the Museo Nazionale in Naples, the tentative proposal of C. Gasparri in another lovely book, Le sculture farnese. Storia e documenti (2007), 172. But again, there’s really no resemblance.
Is the inscription from Tivoli a letter of L. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus? Far from certain. Does the bust represent the author of the letter? Debatable. Are we looking at the face that launched satire? I wouldn’t stake my house on it. But a week’s pursuit of an elusive Roman portrait bust has left me determined to find this man, whoever he bloody well is.
So if anyone happens to have him on your mantlepiece, I’d be grateful if you’d let me know.
One small victory I might be able to claim from this sorry tale, incidentally, is identifying the Holkham head in the Lafrery collection, here. Coincidentally, or maybe not, it is stated to be in the same location, in hortis Cardinalis de Medicis prope villam Julii III Pont. Max., as the Tivoli image.
Also, for those who might (reasonably) question whether any of these sixteenth-century images are likely to be accurate representations of the statues, here is Thucydides in Gallaeus; and here is the statue that Gallaeus is reproducing. I encourage anyone interested to flick through Gallaeus and compare his drawings with modern photographs of the artefacts.
Finally, a book I’ve been reading in connection with all this which has entirely changed how I view ancient sculpture: Erin L. Thompson, Possession: the curious history of private collectors from antiquity to the present (Yale, 2016). Fascinating on the psychology of collecting, and full of telling anecdotes, for example (p. 170) the column drum bought from the collection of Lord Arundel by James Theobald for use as a roller on his bowling green. Sic transit gloria mundi, comments Michaelis.
The latest in an occasional series of blogs about ancient coins reproduced on modern money, which is a way of saying there almost certainly won’t be another one, but I did once write this one about an Afghan banknote and a Greco-Bactrian coin, and it remains my most successful blog by a country mile. Furthermore, what I’m mainly interested in here is a medal rather than a coin as such, but before I get to that, one of my favourite recyclings of an ancient coin design:
This is a Greek €1, and represents, it seems to me, some impressive chutzpah on the part of the Greek designers. Each of the nations in the eurozone have their individual national designs on one side of the €1 coin (within a boundary of European stars) and on the other side a design (incorporating a map of Europe) that is common to every nation. This has always struck me as a terrifically cunning idea by someone or other in the higher strata of the EU, since it indulges the nationalistic instincts of member states but also, in the longer term, ensures that any European, delving into her pocket for a handful of euros, digs out coins of France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Finland, all good for buying you what you want. A powerful message of diversity in unity, of European interconnectedness. (Like the parody of an academic dad I am, I got my son to catalogue the European coinage he was given during a recent trip to Sicily: predominantly Italian, needless to say, but also German, Austrian, Spanish, French, Greek, Belgian, Irish, Portuguese and Slovenian, in rough order of frequency.)
The Greek design is the best of them, I think. What the Greeks chose was a reproduction of the reverse of an Athenian “owl”. These were silver tetradrachms (four-drachma coins), decorated with the owl of Athena, the city’s patron god, a sprig of olive, Athena’s gift to humanity (the key to civilization), and the letters AΘE, short for “Athens” (or Athena): on the euro this overt mark of local identity is strategically obscured by the “1 ΕΥΡΩ”. The Athenian owl, minted with bullion from the silver mines at Laurion in Attica, was an astonishingly successful currency, for two centuries after 500BC “the dominant currency of the eastern Mediterranean” (Chris Howgego, Ancient History from Coins , 97). Such confidence did this owl command that “in the fourth century BC imitations of Athenian owls were produced from Egypt to Babylonia” (Howgego 9), and even further afield: imitation “owls” struck in early Hellenistic Bactria were following on from authentic “owls” that had been “a mainstay of the Bactrian economy in the Achaemenid era” (F. L. Holt, Alexander the Great and Bactria , 97 n. 42). It was a truly international currency if it was widespread in Afghanistan under Persian rule, and that’s obviously why the Greeks chose it for their euro design: the Athenian owl was the world’s first single currency.
(The Greek €2 coin has an image of a woman atop a bull, incidentally. This is Europa, so the Greeks are claiming on their euro coinage to have invented Europe as well as single currencies. Chutzpah, as I say.)
From that to another clever recycling of an ancient design:
This is not a coin but a copper medal, issued in Israel in 1958. On one side it reproduces a Roman coin in its centre, a brass sestertius from AD 71-2 in the reign of the emperor Vespasian (there’s a good image of an original coin here), and in fact the image on the medal closely reflects the size, as well as the design, of the original coin. Depicted on the Roman coin are the emperor, on the left, leaning on a spear, cradling a short sword in his other hand, and with his foot on a defeated enemy’s helmet. On the right is a woman in mourning, her head in her hand, seated on something generally identified as a cuirass. The scene is dissected by a palm tree, and bracketed by the Latin words IUDAEA CAPTA, “Judaea having-been-captured.” Judaea, corresponding roughly to modern Israel, was in antiquity renowned for its palm trees (Pliny, Historia Naturalis 13.26), which could thus symbolize the country. (The SC in the exergue below stands for SENATUS CONSULTO, “by the decree of the Senate,” its import disputed, but perhaps indicating that the coin was “the official Roman coinage”, to be distinguished from local coinages in the provinces.)*
This Roman coin, along with a large number of similar designs, celebrated the defeat of the First Jewish Revolt against Roman control of Judaea, which ended with Vespasian’s capture of Jerusalem in AD 70 and his destruction of the Second Temple. The loss of the Temple is marked by Jews as a key moment in their dispersal from their homeland. From the point of view of Vespasian, this was evidence of the military prowess with which he had defeated the enemies of Rome: there is an authentically Roman callousness in that image of a mourning woman, embodiment of the defeated people. Fully 8% of the coins minted by the Flavian emperors, Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian, addressed this campaign in Judaea, and the Arch of Titus in Rome, completed under Domitian in AD 81-2, depicts in two reliefs on its inner walls scenes from the Triumph celebrated by Vespasian and his elder son Titus in AD 71. On the south side we see the spoils from the capture of the Temple on display in the triumphal procession. (For another coin related, in a different way, to the destruction of the Temple, a gold aureus of Vespasian in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, see here.)
The modern Israeli medal frames the Roman coin in such a way as to express the opposite perspective. Chains around its edge draw out the consequences for the Jewish population of Judaea, enslaved or dispersed, and the Hebrew at the bottom reads (my informants tell me), “Judea went into exile.”
The year 1958, when the medal was produced, was the tenth anniversary of the establishment of Israel. The other side of the medal is a powerful, subtle reversal of the symbolic language of the Roman coin appropriate to that anniversary.
The same palm tree dissects the scene, and again divides a man and a woman. But the woman is standing this time, and the man crouched, and the woman holds up her baby, while the crouching man, her husband, plants an olive tree, symbol of the modern state of Israel. The new tree and the old tree bear the same relation to each other as Israel to ancient Judaea: Judea or New Judea was an option considered for the name of the new nation. But the baby and the olive sapling especially speak of a future denied the mourning woman on the Roman sestertius.
Finally, the inscription, which uses Latin to answer the Latin of the Roman coin, ISRAEL LIBERATA, “Israel having-been-freed,” and in Hebrew (again, I am reliably informed) reads “Ten years for the freedom of Israel”, followed by a date in the Jewish calendar corresponding to 1958.
Ancient coins are fascinating little survivals in themselves, replete with significance if studied expertly and carefully enough. (I am no numismatist, and just get glimpses.) But a whole new dimension of meaning is introduced when they become part of modern expressions of national identity, in Greece, Afghanistan or Israel.
*A. Wallace-Hadrill, “Image and Authority in the Coinage of Augustus,” JRS 76 (1986), 66-87, at 80 ff.: quotation from the Cambridge Ancient History, second edition, Vol. X (1996), 318.
H. St. J. Hart, “Judaea and Rome: The Official Commentary,” Journal of Theological Studies 3 (1952), 172-98;
H. B. Brin, Catalog of Judaea Capta Coinage (1986);
S. Goldhill, The Temple of Jerusalem (2004).
(Ah, January 2015: composed sipping tea on the roof of a Maharajah’s palace in Jaipur…)
If you thought the British in India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were stretching every sinew to deprive Indians of their right to self-determination, think again. Because what a lot of them spent a remarkable amount of time and energy doing was locating the Rock of Aornos.
This mountain, somewhere to the west of the Indus in what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was the site of a famous victory by Alexander the Great in 327/6 BC, but that was about as much as anyone knew: ancient writers generally aren’t too hot on geographical precision. Still, it was a rare visitor to the territory beyond the river who didn’t see fit to express his firm opinions on the matter. Aornos was at Ranigat, or near Attock, or maybe Tarbela. James Abbott, the political officer who gave his name to Abbottabad, the city where Osama bin Laden was killed, scrutinized the mountains to the west of the river, presumably with a telescope: British jurisdiction in his day (the 1850s) only reached as far as the Indus, and he couldn’t get any closer. Nevertheless Abbott’s candidate for Aornos, Mt Mahaban, was the favourite for a while until Aurel Stein’s visit to Swat in 1926. In On Alexander’s Track to the Indus, Stein made a powerful case for Pir Sar, a mountain ridge further up the Indus, and there generally the question rested.
The Europeans who set eyes upon the Indus in the nineteenth century were a motley bunch, imperial functionaries, spies, deserters, mercenaries. But almost to a man they were obsessed with Alexander and any evidence they could find of his presence in this part of the world, whether the coins with Greek inscriptions that Alexander’s successors minted, or the physical landmarks of Alexander’s campaigns across Central and South Asia. There was intense debate about the location of Alexandria in the Caucasus, for example, a city founded by Alexander before he crossed the Hindu Kush in 329BC. It’s now securely identified as Begram, the site of the airbase north of Kabul, but many in the nineteenth century were convinced it was Bamiyan. The most famous of travellers beyond the Indus, in his own day at least, was Alexander Burnes, author of the bestselling Travels into Bokhara. Burnes lost a day on his travels to Bokhara on the banks of the river Beas in the Punjab, searching fruitlessly for the twelve huge altars that Alexander had erected to the Olympian Gods at the point of his furthest advance into India.
But Aornos was the great prize. The capture of the fortress-mountain, so impregnable it was said even Heracles had failed to conquer it, was one of Alexander’s very greatest exploits.
It’s worth wondering why Alexander was so very important to these men. They had all received good classical educations, so he was a European hero they had read about since childhood: Abbott’s argument for Mt Mahaban is full of quotations of the Latin and Greek sources, for example, and the title of his article on the subject, “Gradus ad Aornon”, “Steps toward Aornos”, plays on the title of an aide to Latin verse composition, Gradus ad Parnassum, “Steps toward Parnassus”, that the young Abbott would certainly have encountered at school in Blackheath. It helped that most of these explorers had a very rosy picture of Alexander’s campaigns in Asia. According to Josiah Harlan, an American soldier of fortune in Afghanistan in the 1830s, he was “a European philanthropist” who “performed feats that have consecrated his memory amongst the benefactors of mankind, and impressed the stamp of civilization on the face of the known world.” Alexander was a model for men who believed, as these men did, that they too were bringing “civilization” to backward peoples: Harlan was an extreme example of this, increasingly incapable of distinguishing himself from Alexander of Macedon. But Alexander was also, I think, something familiar in the very alien and disorienting terrains and cultures where these men found themselves. If these European interlopers could convince themselves that Alexander had been there before they had—had even left his mark on this exotic landscape—that made them less anxious about their own presence in places they really didn’t belong.
Harlan’s assessment of Alexander was romantic nonsense, needless to say. In reality Alexander campaigned with remorseless brutality, and left unimaginable chaos in his wake. The academic Horace Hayman Wilson, writing in the 1840s, pointed out that the ferocious campaigns attributed to Alexander “would have been held up to execration had they been narrated of a Jangiz or a Timur, but are passed over almost unnoticed by historians when they are narrated of the type of classical civilization, a Greek.” Absolutely right, but Wilson’s was a lonely voice at the time, and much later even a man of immense humanity like Aurel Stein seemed to lose all objectivity when Alexander was mentioned, reverting perhaps to the excitement of the schoolboy who first heard of Alexander’s exploits. In the 1990s the TV historian Michael Wood travelled to Pir Sar and met an old man who still remembered Stein: “He spoke a lot about Iskander…”
Pir Sar, Stein’s candidate, undoubtedly fits well with the ancient accounts of the capture of Aornos, and most writers on Alexander still accept Stein’s identification. But I happen to prefer another theory which identifies Aornos as Mt Elam, near Barikot. I like it because it juggles the ancient accounts pretty well, but mainly because it allows another voice to be heard besides that of Alexander and the triumphant Greeks.
Let me try to explain myself.
Giuseppe Tucci was an Italian expert on Buddhism who spent a lot of time in Swat investigating the Buddhist and other archaeological remains there. He had a chequered history, a bit too close to Mussolini, and a bit too close also to the regime in Japan in the 1930s, whose militarism was more Buddhist in inspiration than most people appreciate. But Tucci’s research in Swat gave him something that other Aornos hunters, armed with their classical texts, didn’t have, and that is an understanding of the culture and beliefs of the people Alexander encountered when he invaded, the victims of the Aornos campaign as opposed to the Greek victors.
The ancient sources describe people from all around taking refuge, in face of the Macedonian onslaught, on this mountain top, only for Alexander to capture it amid predictable scenes of carnage. Tucci was convinced that, if the people of this area had needed to take refuge from an invader, they would have gone to a sacred place, and evidence suggests that Mt Elam was a holy mountain for the people of Swat from time immemorial. There is a story of the Buddha associated with the place: we’re told by the Chinese traveller-monk Xuanzang, who climbed Elam in the seventh century AD, that in an earlier life the Buddha was happy to die here in return for hearing just half a verse of the Buddhist teaching. Elam is also a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, sacred to Rama, whose name has been written on a rock at its summit. Even the tale told by the Greeks of Heracles’ attempts to capture Aornos hints at a local myth of a god’s abode assaulted by another god or demon.
The ancient accounts of the capture of Aornos are predictably violent: Alexander’s troops reached the summit as the defenders had begun to make their escape, and massacred many of them as they fled. “Others, retreating in panic, perished by throwing themselves down the precipices,” the Greek historian Arrian records. If Tucci was right, what Alexander’s troops were doing was attacking the most sacred place of the Swati peoples, the abode of their god or gods, somewhere to which they would only resort in absolute desperation. Tucci suggests that the name that the Greeks heard as “Aornos” was in the local language “aarana”, “a common name for any sheltered place.” If Aornos is Elam, a tale of exceptional military prowess becomes more like a story of the impact of war on civilian populations.
Incidentally, I’m glad to see that Tucci’s theory, even if it’s generally overlooked by historians of the ancient world, is well known where it matters. Malala describes gazing at Mt Elam from her bedroom window in Mingora, “a sacred mountain” to which the Swati people fled as Alexander approached “believing that they would be protected by their gods because it was so high.” I’m sure she’s right about this, as she is about so many things.
J. Abbott, “Gradus ad Aornon,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 23 (1854), 309–63;
A. Burnes, Travels into Bokhara (1834);
H. H. Wilson, Ariana Antiqua (1841);
B. Macintyre, Josiah the Great (2011);
A. Stein, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus (1929);
M. Wood, In the footsteps of Alexander the Great (1998);
G. Tucci, “Preliminary report on an archaeological survey in Swat,” East and West 9 (1958), 279–328;
L. M. Olivieri, “Notes on the problematical sequence of Alexander’s itinerary in Swat: a geo-historical approach,” East and West 46 (1996), 45-78;
idem, “‘Frontier archaeology’: Sir Aurel Stein, Swat, and the Indian Aornos,” South Asian Studies 31 (2015), 58-70.