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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sitzender Herkules, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forsan et haec olim…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can gods cry?


My blog poses the questions that everybody wants answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick, pluck or even savour the day

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

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

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

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

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

When words collide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desperately seeking Sulpicia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incense and patchouli

Here is Nisbet & Hubbard on an unusual, arresting word used by Horace at Odes 2.7.8, malobathro. It’s a fascinating word in itself, as N&H explain, a borrowing from Sanskrit interestingly distorted in the process of transfer. It reminds me a bit of how we got “orange” from “naranj”.

The clever explanation of the Greek loss of ta-, as N&H say, comes from Eduard Schwyzer; meanwhile Bertold Laufer suggests that the source of μαλάβαθρον was what we call patchouli leaves, which Henry Yule in Hobson-Jobson records as being “sold in every bazar in Hindustan,” and “used as an ingredient in tobacco for smoking, as hair-scent by women, and especially for stuffing mattresses and laying among clothes as we use lavender.”

“In a fluid form,” Yule continues, “patchouli was introduced into England in 1844, and soon became very fashionable as a perfume,” especially popular on the hippie scene in the 1960s and ’70s. In Horace’s poem the malobathrum, not so differently, is a fragrant oil worn in the hair at symposia or drinking parties, and it features in Horace’s reminiscence of a scene from his younger, wilder days. In the tiny poetic forms of his lyric verse Horace selects his words very carefully indeed, and while thinking about this poem for a Natalie Haynes programme recorded last week I got to wondering what he saw in this peculiar word.

Let’s start with Odes 2.7.

The poem welcomes an old friend and comrade back to Rome after a long absence. Many years before, Horace and Pompeius had shared the experience of fighting for Marcus Brutus against the forces of Mark Antony and the future Augustus, the assassins of Julius Caesar against his heirs. After the crushing defeat of the “tyrannicides” at Philippi in 42 BC, Horace had made his peace with the victors and returned to Rome, before long finding a patron in Augustus’ right-hand man Maecenas, and enjoying the literary celebrity that followed. But Pompeius, so this poem tells us, had continued the fight against Augustus, perhaps with Sextus Pompey (to whom he may have been related) until his final defeat in 36 BC, and subsequently with Antony when he and Augustus came to conflict.

Now, finally, in middle age, Pompeius is back home, and Horace throws a party for him, or perhaps give him a party in poetic form in lieu thereof. The general scenario has parallels elsewhere in the Odes: in 3.14, for example, Horace contrasts his peaceable state of mind in a Rome ruled by Augustus with his youthful bravado at Philippi; while in 1.7, addressed to L. Munatius Plancus, founder of the city of Lyons, Horace again seems to contrast the violence of the Civil Wars with the peace and friendship represented by a drinking party. The lyric poetry that Horace is writing spends a lot of time in the symposium, but Horace lends the act of drinking with friends a greater significance: his poetic symposium, a place where Pompeius, Plancus and we the readers come together as friends, is a space where Romans can forget about their differences and rediscover what they have in common. The oblivion brought by consumption of alcohol becomes a metaphor for Rome’s rejection of past conflict. Friendship, restored after the moral chaos of civil conflict is important throughout Horace’s poetry. Here in 2.7 the last word is amico: a friendship has been restored out of the turmoil of Roman fighting Roman.

Malobathrum, patchouli, is what I’m really concerned with, though. Here’s the whole poem, with David West’s translation slightly adapted, the malobathrum at l. 8:

O saepe mecum tempus in ultimum
deducte Bruto militiae duce,
quis te redonauit Quiritem
dis patriis Italoque caelo,

Pompei, meorum prime sodalium,               5
cum quo morantem saepe diem mero
fregi, coronatus nitentis
malobathro Syrio capillos?

tecum Philippos et celerem fugam
sensi relicta non bene parmula,                    10
cum fracta uirtus et minaces
turpe solum tetigere mento;

sed me per hostis Mercurius celer
denso pauentem sustulit aere,
te rursus in bellum resorbens                    15
unda fretis tulit aestuosis.

ergo obligatam redde Ioui dapem
longaque fessum militia latus
depone sub lauru mea, nec
parce cadis tibi destinatis.                          20

obliuioso leuia Massico
ciboria exple, funde capacibus
unguenta de conchis. quis udo
deproperare apio coronas

curatue myrto? quem Venus arbitrum         25
dicet bibendi? non ego sanius
bacchabor Edonis: recepto
dulce mihi furere est amico.

You and I have often been led to the edge
of doom with Brutus in command,
and now who has made you a Roman again
and restored to your ancestral gods and Italian sky,

O Pompeius, first of my friends, with whom
I so often broke into the lagging day with neat wine,
head garlanded and hair sleek
with Syrian malobathrum?

With you I knew Philippi and speedy flight,
leaving my little shield behind, shame to say,
when virtue snapped and the chins
of blusterers touched the base earth.

I panicked, but swift Mercury carried me off
in a dense mist through the enemy ranks,
while a wave sucked you back into war
and swept you along in a boiling sea.

So pay to Jupiter the feast that was vowed,
lay down your body weary with campaigning
here under my laurel tree, and have no mercy
on the casks of wine I have reserved for you.

Fill up the polished Egyptian cups with Massic
for forgetfulness and pour fragrant oils from full shells.
Whose business is it to run
for garlands of moist celery

and myrtle? Whom will Venus choose as master
of the wine? l shall run wild as any Edonian
at her Bacchic orgies. My friend is back.
What joy to go mad!

In the second stanza, with a few deft strokes, Horace sketches that youthful existence he led with Pompeius in Brutus’ camp, the informality of sodales, “mates”, the drinking initiated far too early in the day, garlands, Horace’s hair still full and sleek (at Epistles 1.20.23 a couple of years later, as West notes, Horace is praecanus, prematurely grey), and the indulgence of malobathrum. I think this exotic word, and the substance it denotes (“Syrian”, as Nisbet & Hubbard remark, could imply a source much further east), suggests in its own right not just a place apart, far from the “Italian sky”, but also a distant, irrecoverable time. Smells are notoriously evocative: for research purposes I have been sniffing patchouli oil, and it’s a scent that stays with you. I don’t know if the name of a scent can share any of that evocative power, but I do think that Horace, on the tiny canvases he allows himself in his lyric poetry, gets as close as any poet to making words do for us what a scent can.

Here one exotic vocabulary item, as exotic to read as to smell, vividly evokes… what? Long-distant youthful abandon, it seems to me, time out of mind.


The noblest of their sons

One of the big surprises that Virgil springs on his readers as the Aeneid gets under way is to take them straight to Carthage.

This city is really the last place that a Roman epic should start, the most relentless and dangerous enemy that Rome in its long history felt it had faced: the threat of Hannibal coming to get them was a favoured Roman method for getting the kids to eat their greens, long after the city (and the threat) had been eliminated in 146BC, so deep ran the fear evoked by Rome’s greatest imperial rival.

But Virgil doesn’t just drag his Roman epic to enemy HQ, he then compounds the scandal by making a place that Romans very well knew represented all that was most despicable in human behaviour, all that was most uncivilized, most un-Roman, a really rather decent place, even  — terrifyingly — a place quite reminiscent of Rome. I tell my students, though they probably don’t believe me, that what is most clearly evoked by the scene that meets Aeneas as he approaches Carthage for the first time, the busy building activity of the rising city, is Rome in the first years of Augustus’ principate, the time and place of Virgil’s writing, and Romans’ first reading, of the poem.

It is indeed a shocking way to open a Roman national epic, almost as if Virgil was out to offer his Augustan readers no kind of simple answers.

By the time Aeneas leaves Carthage, it has assumed an altogether less friendly, though also more familiar, appearance. One way of understanding the trajectory of Aeneas’ stay in Carthage is as the creation of a Carthage recognisable to Roman readers, answering to the deep prejudices they had developed about their mortal Mediterranean rival during the Punic Wars. By the end of Book 4 Dido has sworn undying enmity to Rome, conjured up Hannibal from her own ashes, and generally started to look a lot like an existential threat. What’s quite interesting here is that Aeneas shares responsibility for the creation of this monster: Carthage would not be Carthage if Aeneas hadn’t met, loved and abandoned Dido.

But another respect in which Carthage becomes recognisably Carthage by the time Aeneas leaves it is in its religious character. In a brilliant article James Davidson* argues that Dido’s suicide at the end of Book 4 is meant by Virgil to inaugurate something that the Romans associated very strongly with Carthage, something they found especially deplorable: human sacrifice.

Now, a lot of what the Romans believed about the Carthaginians, for example their sexual immorality and their Punica fides, an alleged incapacity to honour an agreement, we can dismiss as the prejudice of a warring nation for its enemy. But it is generally accepted these days that the sacrifice of humans, and especially children (apparently children of the elite), at the temple of Tanit (Virgil’s Juno) was indeed an important element of Carthaginian religious observance. The sacrifice was a means to secure the goodwill of the gods, and Diodorus Siculus (20.14.4-6) records the frenetic activity occasioned by an unexpected raid on Carthage by the Sicilian tyrant Agathocles in 310BC, a crisis (it was evident to the Carthaginians) caused by their neglect of the gods which could only, the logic went, be resolved by appeasing those gods — with the most valuable thing it was possible for them to offer, their own children or themselves. Diodorus’ account is without doubt exaggerated, but the event itself, less some of the more lurid details, is entirely plausible:

“They also alleged that Cronus [i.e. Baal] had turned against them, inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons (τῶν υἱῶν τοὺς κρατίστους), but more recently, secretly buying and raising children, they had sent these to be sacrificed; and when an investigation was made, some of those who had been sacrificed were discovered to have been supposititious. When they had considered these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honours of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.”

We have already contemplated two ways in which Virgil’s readers probably reacted to his depiction of Carthage: surprise at the friendly, principled face it presented to Aeneas on his arrival, and a familiar horror at the vengeful promise of eternal enmity voiced at his departure. But one of the most effective things Virgil does, in Book 1 especially, is to sow something else in his readers’ minds, periodically qualifying the positive impression made by Dido and her city with niggling hints of that more familiar, much more intimidating Carthage. Again Davidson picks up on these dissonant notes, and he almost says what I’m about to say, and I’m pretty sure thought it. It’s obvious enough when you think about it, but still a great example of Virgil’s ability to manipulate his readers’ responses to his story.

Someone who harbours serious concerns about the Carthaginians is Venus, Aeneas’ divine mother. At 1.643ff. Aeneas, who has by now met and been warmly welcomed by Dido, sends word to the Trojan ships for his son Ascanius to join him in Carthage, at which point Venus hatches a plan to substitute her divine son Cupid for Ascanius, and thus ensure that Dido, under Cupid’s influence, will fall in love with Aeneas and do him no harm. (Venus’ plan is not flawless.) The grounds for the goddess’s anxiety about Carthage are given at 661, quippe domum timet ambiguam Tyriosque bilinguis, “since indeed she fears the untrustworthy house and the two-tongued Tyrians.” Clearly here Venus’ concerns evoke those raw Roman prejudices about Punica fides, “Punic faith”, their congenital untrustworthiness, a jarring reminder of how Carthage really is amid the overwhelmingly positive representation of Dido and her city.

But I can’t help feeling that the swapping of Cupid for Ascanius is still a bit undermotivated, Dido perfectly capable of falling for Aeneas without Cupid’s intervention. And if we do need a bit more reason for Venus to keep the boy Ascanius well away from Carthage until she’s confident Carthage isn’t behaving like Carthage, well, perhaps the most deep-seated of all Roman misgivings about the place was what they did to children there.

As Diodorus suggests, the really valuable children were the high-born, the children of the elite; in fact only the highest-born would do. No child was more elite than Ascanius, ancestor of the Romans, and of the Julian family in particular: he is the character that represents in the Aeneid all the promise of Rome’s glorious future. Virgil intrudes, with exquisite subtlety, a reminder of what this place where Aeneas was busily making himself at home was in the habit of doing to boys of such extraordinary promise.

How terrifying a threat Carthage actually posed to Rome.


Image illustrating Diodorus, from “Carthage, l’histoire, sa trace et son écho” (1995) via Sophie Hay.

*J. Davidson, “Domesticating Dido,” in M. Burden (ed.), A woman scorn’d: responses to the Dido myth (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), 65-88.

Hippolytus > Priapus

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 from Pompeii, courtesy of Sophie Hay (who else?)

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 (Archipoeta in Latin), 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 to scriptural. The Latin model is displaced 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.

Hearing the silence

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)