Archive | Uncategorized RSS for this section

Metamorphic metametricality


Any blogs from me will be short and sweet this summer, my writing schedule being what it is, and highly likely to be about Ovid for the same reason.

For this one, two assumptions are required: first, that Ovid is so very self-aware a poet that his narrative might at any moment enact his literary principles; and secondly that the metre of poetry in antiquity, and in Rome specifically, was meaningful in its own right.

I’m here concerned with the Metamorphoses, unusual among Ovid’s works for being composed in the dactylic hexameter, stereotypically the metre of epic, the highest form of poetry. The hexameter was known as the herous or ἡρωικός, the “heroic” metre, its very name implying it was intrinsically suited to tell the deeds of great men: I discussed an ancient response to the hexameter and its ethos, the sotadean metre, in another blog here. The Metamorphoses is ostensibly a heroic epic, as its metre and length and cast of heroes imply, but Ovid is throughout this poem superbly disrespectful of the sublime values an epic was supposed to embody.

Ovid’s inappropriate approach to writing epic has been noted, and deplored, ever since he wrote it, and a recurrent theme of the criticism of ancient figures like the Senecas Elder and Younger and Quintilian and more modern critics like John Dryden, as an article of mine argued many moons ago,* was that Ovid’s approach to writing epic, properly the task of a mature and serious sensibility, was mischievous–childish, to use a metaphor regularly found: Seneca the Younger chastises Ovid’s addiction to pueriles ineptiae, “childish silliness”, for example, and Dryden talks of the “boyisms” that mar the dignity of his epic poetry.

The main point of my article was to show, not just that Ovid was perfectly aware how far he was falling short of epic respectability in the Metamorphoses, but that Ovid took poetic self-awareness to an ever higher level, actually anticipating within his poem the criticisms that would be directed at it. At three points in particular, Cupid’s encounter with Apollo in Met. 1, Phaethon’s piloting of the sun chariot in Met. 2, and the famous story of Daedalus and Icarus in Met. 8, I suggested that these accounts could be read as “metaliterary drama”, vignettes programmatically encapsulating the deeper character of the poem. In each case, simply put, a heroic circumstance is disrupted by a child, Apollo transformed from the conqueror of Python into a plaintive lover, the horses of the sun careering out of control and scorching the earth under Phaethon’s inadequate control, and Daedalus’ momentous achievement of flight ruined by Icarus’ boyish refusal to obey instruction. Ovid was staging in his own narrative the childish subversion of epic values he would later himself be told off for.

It’s Icarus’ story that I want to bring back to metre. One metaliterary vignette, I’d suggest, is the scene from Met. 8 where Daedalus is meticulously constructing wings for himself and his son. Icarus does what children do, getting in the way (193-203, with the Miller Loeb translation, slightly adapted).

tum lino medias et ceris alligat imas
atque ita conpositas paruo curuamine flectit,
ut ueras imitetur aues. puer Icarus una                               195
stabat et, ignarus sua se tractare pericla,
ore renidenti modo, quas uaga mouerat aura,
captabat plumas, flauam modo pollice ceram
mollibat lusuque suo mirabile patris
impediebat opus. postquam manus ultima coepto              200
inposita est, geminas opifex librauit in alas
ipse suum corpus motaque pependit in aura.

Then Daedalus ties the feathers together with twine and wax at middle and bottom;
and, thus arranged, he bends them with a gentle curve
so that they look like real birds’ wings. His son Icarus
was standing by and, little knowing that he was handling his own peril,
with smiling face now snatched at the feathers
which the shifting breeze had blown about, now moulded the yellow wax
with his thumb, and by his play hindered
his father’s wondrous task. When now the finishing touches
had been put to the work, the maestro himself balanced his body
on two wings and hung poised in the beaten air.

We all know how this story ends. What for me is typical of Ovid about this passage is how he paints a picture which is vividly true to life, the child chasing feathers and moulding the wax into shapes, but which at the same time works perfectly as a metaphor for the Metamorphoses as a whole, a poem that refuses to abide by the rules, a world where things never go for its heroic protagonists as they should. (Denis Feeney once explained to me why he liked Toy Story so much: “It’s just like the Metamorphoses: Buzz Lightyear thinks he’s a superhero, but in fact he’s just a toy.”)

But what about the metre?

Bear in mind that I’m currently thinking too much about Ovid, and I’ve been thinking too hard about metre for years. But just note how the boy Icarus enters and exits this scene, puer Icarus una… in 195 and impediebat opus in 200: in each case Icarus isn’t just disrupting Daedalus’ wondrous task, but interrupting the heroic measure, intervening halfway into the dactylic hexameter, departing halfway through.

Ovid’s intense self-consciousness undoubtedly extends to the metres he uses, we know that from elsewhere. And whether or not there is metrical self-awareness here, it is poetically effective to have Icarus butting in unexpectedly after the line has started. But I suspect that Ovid thinks of the metre of his poem, as much as any other element of it, as a conventional epic feature ripe for his mischievous attention, and wants us to appreciate it as such.

Here, I think, as heroic action is disrupted by this childish impulse, whether we call it Icarus’s or Ovid’s, so is heroic form.

*”Child’s play: Ovid and his critics,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003), 66-91.

Being mindful of Mnestheus


Essential to Virgil’s Aeneid is the claim that the Trojan hero Aeneas was the direct ancestor of the ruling family of Rome, the Iulii or Julii: Augustus and his adoptive father Julius Caesar were descendants of Aeneas, and through him of the goddess Venus, Aeneas’ mother.

Virgil didn’t invent all this: it seems to have been part of Julius family self-promotion for some time. The coin at the top, an issue of Julius Caesar in about 46 BC, thirty years before the Aeneid, shows Aeneas carrying his father and the palladium (a figure of Athena that was a talisman of the city of Troy, and then of Rome) out of Troy on one side (with CAESAR making the connection crystal-clear); the profile on the other side is Venus. Politics in the late Republic was awash with candidates for office claiming to be descended from Hercules, Odysseus, one of the Roman kings, vel sim. So the Julii weren’t doing anything wildly unusual here, odd as it may seem to us.

Iulus was a key component of this claim: the son of Aeneas, also known as Ascanius, he travels with his father from Troy to Italy and features prominently in various episodes across the poem. The importance of Iulus and his name is signalled by Jupiter in Book 1, when he explains to a troubled Venus that Ascanius would now also be known as Iulus (Aen. 1.267-8), and that a member of the Julian family, its name derived from Iulus, would in time come to rule the world (Aen. 1.286-8).

Now, Virgil had Julian family lore to draw on, as I say, but that didn’t make it plain sailing. Some very interesting scholarship has been done recently by Sergio Casali* and Alessandro Barchiesi†, drawing out how tendentious Virgil’s claims about Augustus’s ancestry were even in a Roman context. Virgil’s most authoritative sources and predecessors for the story of Aeneas, Q. Ennius and Cato the Elder, had both rejected any connection between the Julii and Ascanius/Iulus: Ennius in his epic poem Annales (the great predecessor of the Aeneid) denied that Aeneas had had any male children (Casali pp. 104-106), while Cato in his Origines, the first work of historiography written in Latin, stated that Iulus had died childless (Servius at Aen. 6.760 = Cato fr. 8; Barchiesi pp. 6-7). Cato’s version of events may have been a conscious contradiction of Julian family propaganda. In either case, at any rate, influential accounts of the prehistory of Rome did not say what Virgil needed them to say, and a lot depended on Virgil’s ability to convince his readers of his alternative version of things (to make them believe in Iulus, essentially.)

Lucretius offers an interesting perspective on the challenges facing Virgil in forging a heroic ancestry for the Emperor. De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ explanation of Epicurean philosophy in epic form (which made him Virgil’s most important recent predecessor), is addressed to Memmius, most probably C. Memmius, a prominent Roman politician with apparent Epicurean sympathies. Lucretius starts his poem with a hymn to Venus, asking her for inspiration, and in the process says complimentary things about Memmius. In a way Venus, Memmius and Lucretius will all be collaborators in the creation of the De Rerum Natura: the goddess is asked to be Lucretius’ “partner in writing the verses/ that I am attempting to compose on the nature of things (de rerum natura) for my friend of the Memmian family, whom you, goddess, have willed at all times to excel, endowed with all gifts” (te sociam studeo scribendis versibus esse,/ quos ego de rerum natura pangere conor/ Memmiadae nostro, quem tu, dea, tempore in omni/ omnibus ornatum voluisti excellere rebus, 1.24-7).

In fact Lucretius’ address to Venus suits his addressee as much as the poet, and the choice of deity is no doubt partly to be explained that way: the Memmii, like the Julii, had a family myth that they were descended from Venus, and that they were Troiugenae, of Trojan ancestry (the Roman equivalent of an ancestor on the Mayflower). The evidence for the Memmian claim about Venus is partly the emphasis on the goddess in coinage minted by members of the Memmius family (this is an example from the 80s BC), and partly here in Lucretius. Stefan Weinstock‡ further suggests (p. 23) that what Lucretius says about Venus’ special concern for Memmius, the aura she lends her favourite, is rather like things said about the favour shown by her to Julius Caesar (Dio 43.43.3; Suetonius, Julius Caesar 49.3; Velleius 2.41.1).

As for the Trojan origin of the Memmii, the first line of De Rerum Natura (to which we’ll come momentarily) and a detail in Aeneid 5 (relevant later) make that perfectly clear. But if C. Memmius played up a Trojan connection it also gives extra point to a jibe aimed at him by Cicero (Ad Att. 1.18.3): recounting gossip about Memmius’ adulterous behaviour, Cicero dubs him “our Roman Paris” (noster Paris), preying on the wife of “Menelaus” (M. Lucullus), and because this Paris is even worse than his Trojan counterpart also on the wife of “Agamemnon” (L. Lucullus, M.’s brother). All in all, it does rather look as if the Julii and the Memmii were promoting their claims to political advancement in pretty similar ways.

The opening line of the De Rerum Natura, addressed to Venus, draws Memmius and Julius Caesar especially closely together: Aeneadum genetrix, hominum diuumque uoluptas, “Mother of the descendants of Aeneas, pleasure of men and gods.” It’s a fantastic way to start, defining the goddess simultaneously in Roman and Epicurean terms: she is the ancestor of the Romans (the descendants of Aeneas) in the first half of the line, and she embodies the fundamental Epicurean principle of uoluptas, pleasure, in the second half. Lucretius’ first verse thus encapsulates the whole project of his poem, to take Rome and make it Epicurean.

But in the unusual word Lucretius selects for the Romans, Aeneadae, “descendants of Aeneas,” there’s a further implication, it seems to me. As already suggested, the evocation of Venus is inseparable from the dedicatee of the poem, C. Memmius, who claimed descent from the goddess. But what is to prevent us thinking that Memmius didn’t only share with Julius Caesar the claim of descent from Venus but also, more specifically, the descent from Venus’ son, Aeneas himself? We’ve already seen, after all, how hard Virgil had to work (through Ascanius/Iulus) to establish a unique line from Aeneas to Julius Caesar and Augustus. Given that we know the Memmii claimed Venus as an ancestor, and claimed to have originated in Troy, Aeneas would be an obvious hook to hang it all on. Certainly the very first word of the De Rerum Natura comes into clearer focus if Memmius considered himself an Aeneades, “descendant of Aeneas.”

So did C. Memmius actually claim Aeneas as an ancestor? Could Virgil, if Roman history had taken a slightly different turn, have written an Aeneid in honour of Memmius?

The Memmii do actually feature in the Aeneid, and this might help us see what Virgil does with the awkward fact, always assuming I’m on the right track so far, that the Memmii were basically making the same claims about their glorious ancestry as the Julii were. In Book 5 the contestants in the boat race during Anchises’ funeral games are identified as ancestors of Roman families: Sergestus the forebear of the Sergii, Cloanthus of the Cluentii (Servius ad loc. adds Gyas of the Geganii), and Mnestheus, genus a quo nomine Memmi (117), “from which name comes the race of Memmius.”

So the Memmii do have a Trojan ancestor, according to Virgil, but it’s Mnestheus, not Aeneas. Who is this Mnestheus? As Weinstock explains (p. 23), his name is related to “Memmius” rather cleverly, Mnestheus suggesting Greek μνήμων (mnemon, “mindful”) and Memmius the Latin equivalent memor. In the Aeneid Mnestheus is a significant character, one of the most prominent Trojans after Aeneas himself, and (as Barney Taylor points out to me) he’s Aeneas’ cousin: both of them are descended from Assaracus (Aen. 12.127; Ennius frs, 28-9 Skutsch; Aen. 1.284). But the other thing to say about Mnestheus is that there’s not much sign of him before Virgil. There’s a Menestheus in the Iliad (leader of the Athenians, 2.552), but that’s all. It follows, of course, that the idea that the Memmii were descended from a Trojan hero called Mnestheus is, for us at least, first attested in Virgil.

It’s all very intriguing. Mnestheus is really as close to Aeneas as he can be, almost interchangeable with him, you might say. The question I’m asking myself, obviously, is whether he’s Virgil’s invention, necessary to ensure that the pure ancestry back to Aeneas belongs exclusively to the Julii, and to Augustus. Invented Trojans are not thin on the ground in the Aeneid: in fact very few of Aeneas’ companions were characters already in Homer or other accounts of the Trojan War. But it’s a slightly different state of affairs when so much depends on the status of an individual: it matters a lot, for example, that Aeneas had already featured in the Iliad, providing that indisputable continuity from Troy to Rome.

If the Mnestheus/Memmius link was indeed concocted by Virgil, it illustrates two things at least about the Aeneid. One is the delicate balance that Virgil needed to maintain between celebrating the emperor Augustus and not ruffling the feathers of the wider elite on whose goodwill Augustus’ settlement depended: the Memmii are still done great honour in this poem, given ancestry in Troy, in an impressive warrior named Mnestheus. But they don’t get a piece of Aeneas. The other thing it illustrates, though, is the power of a story told with sufficient confidence to shape important details of national ideology. Virgil may have got Iulus from Julian family lore, but if he did indeed conjure Mnestheus up out of thin air, he has convinced us by sheer narrative bravado not just of the existence of a Trojan hero called Mnestheus but also that the claim of the Julii to descent from Aeneas is the only valid one.

An absolutely fascinating wrinkle to end with, though. In Ephesus Austrian archaeologists found the remains of an impressive monument, maybe funerary, for C. Memmius’ son, also C. Memmius (some images and description here). Mario Torelli has written a brilliant, if speculative, article⸸ on this building, arguing from reliefs of potentially heroic figures which perhaps decorated its third level, and from a fragment of a Greek inscription with the genitive of a name ending “–stheus” which originates somewhere on it, that one of the functions of the monument was to celebrate the younger C. Memmius’ descent from (Mne)stheus.

Image from W. Alzinger & A. Bammer, Das Monument des C. Memmius (Forschungen in Ephesos VII) (Vienna, 1971), 42 (see p. 17 for the details of its discovery).

Theories about the date of this monument range from the early to the late Augustan period, the 30s BC to the first decade AD, but Torelli wants to place it much earlier, in the late 50s or early 40s BC, a full generation before the Aeneid. That wouldn’t suit me very well, but I think it’s fair to say that the date of the Memmius Monument is really anyone’s guess. The idea that Mnestheus might be depicted on it is incredibly appealing, though: if we could assume a date later than the Aeneid, it might make my point about the power of Virgil’s fiction rather well if C. Memmius junior had adopted an ancestry formulated in the Aeneid.

We somehow have to square Aeneadum and –σθέως, I suppose, but there’s every chance I’m barking up the wrong tree.

* S. Casali, “Killing the father: Ennius, Naevius and Virgil’s Julian imperialism,” in W. Fitzgerald & E. Gowers (eds.), Ennius perennis: the Annals and beyond (Cambridge, 2007), 103-128;

† A. Barchiesi, “Jupiter the antiquarian: the name of Iulus (Virgil, Aeneid 1.267-8),” in R. Hunter & S. P. Oakley, Latin literature and its transmission (Cambridge, 2016), 1-9;

‡ S. Weinstock, Divus Julius (Oxford, 1971);

⸸ M. Torelli, “Il monumento efesino di Memmio. Un capolavoro dell’ideologia nobiliare della fine della repubblica,” Scienze dell’Antichità 2 (1988), 403-426 = M. Torelli, Il rango, il rito e l’immagine (Milan, 1997), 152-74.

Metric, geometric; even mystic


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.

The Sea of Okhotsk

A thought occasioned by the anniversaries of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horror of which it is in no way designed to qualify. But there was a context, and my father happened to be part of it.

He was in Kiel, northern Germany, in the summer of 1945, having fought through Europe since D-Day. A senior officer of the regiment was visiting, and he and his fellow Royal Marines had been gathered together to be addressed by him.

“Any of you chaps know where the Sea of Okhotsk is?” he asked. My dad, the perpetual swotty schoolboy (there’s a reason I’m an academic, and he was only 24), stuck his hand up and answered the question. 

The next thing that occurred to him was why the general was asking it.

On St George and his day

The last time I gave much thought to St George, I think, was in Afghanistan. I was researching Bamiyan, and visited a valley, Darre-ye Azhdaha, a few miles to the west of Bamiyan town. At its mouth there is now a housing development for refugees returned from Iran; but if you follow the narrow, steep-sided valley further up, it’s blocked by a high volcanic ridge associated with some interesting folklore.

According to tradition, the ridge is a dragon (azhdaha) slain by Hazrat-e Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and a figure of special importance to the predominantly Shi’i population of Bamiyan. A crevice running along the top of the ridge was made by the sweep of Ali’s sword, reddish mineral deposits around it are the dragon’s blood, the sound of subterranean water the dying creature’s groans, and the milky mineral waters that flow out from the end of the ridge its penitential tears.

This dragon, the story goes, was terrorizing Bamiyan, extorting food from the townspeople—600lb of food, two camels, and one girl per day, according to a version collected by the archaeologists Ahmad Ali Kohzad and Ria Hackin in the 1930s. Eventually salvation arrived in the form of Ali ibn Abi Talib, riding his horse Doldol and brandishing his sword Zulfiqar. Ali slew the dragon, rescued the girl, and converted the hitherto pagan people of Bamiyan to Islam, so impressed were they by his self-evidently divinely-sanctioned success.

A similar story is to be found attached to many rock formations across Afghanistan, in fact. My immediate reaction when I heard it was of course to be struck by its remarkable similarity to the tales told of St George, who also killed a dragon, rescued a girl, and converted the people, though in his case to Christianity. I wasn’t apparently the first to make the connection: British officers in the First Afghan War in 1840 were disconcerted to hear stories they associated with their national saint told of features of the landscape around Kabul.

But how do we explain more or less identical folk stories in Afghanistan and in England?

The myth of the dragon fighter is as ancient as can be, already well established in the earliest Persian and Indians texts we possess, and with parallels also in Greco-Roman myth and other ancient middle-eastern cultures. How to Kill a Dragon is the title of a book by Calvert Watkins in which he attempts to identify echoes of the poetic language of the original Indo-Europeans: it was evidently a story that was already being told, in some form, when the Indo-European ancestors were in their homeland on the steppe.

To explain the similarity of St George and Hazrat-e Ali, though, we probably don’t have to peer quite so far back in time. The dragon slayer was a particularly important image for the Sasanians, the pre-Islamic rulers of Iran. What the story of the dragon slayer has always essentially been about is the triumph of order and civilization over the forces of chaos. A key element of the story was often the securing of water, the essential commodity for agriculture, essential in turn for settled and civilized existence. In St George folklore water is often being hoarded by the dragon until released by the hero, and this is a common feature also of the story told in the East: in the Rigveda the divine hero Indra made the world when he slew the dragon and “let loose to flow the Seven Rivers,” for example, while the two ancient Iranian festivals of Nowruz and Mehragan were both associated with stories of dragon slaying that restored and maintained fertility. (Water flows through and out of the Azhdaha at Bamiyan, too.) But in pre-Islamic Iran the popularity of stories of dragon slayers, whether Garshasp or Feridun or many others, also reflected more profound doctrines of the Sasanian state religion, Zoroastrianism, which understood world history as a perpetual battle between sharply defined realms of Good and Evil: the story of hero destroying monster encapsulated that perennial duel.

(On all of this the article “Azdaha” in the wonderful online Encyclopaedia Iranica is extremely interesting.)

When Zoroastrianism was superseded by Islam, the thinking goes, the folklore persisted, only with Ali taking the role of the Persian hero, and the dragon assuming an Islamic rather than Zoroastrian religious significance.

Meanwhile, far to the west, St George was very much a product of Middle-Eastern Christianity. Jewish and Christian imagery and doctrine had long borrowed from their Zoroastrian neighbours, but the specific story of St George’s conquest of the dragon is quite a late development, first attested in the eleventh century AD. It seems to have enjoyed a particular popularity in Georgia and the Caucasus—territories that lay on the borders of the Iranian world and were profoundly influenced by Persian traditions of art and thought (cf. Sara Kuehn in her detailed study The Dragon in East Christian and Islamic Art).

So when Hazrat-e Ali in Bamiyan reminded me of St George, killing the dragon, rescuing the girl and converting the kingdom, what I may well have been seeing was the same essentially Persian myth, an expression of the Zoroastrian conflict between Light and Dark so powerfully definitive that it survived the eclipse of Zoroastrianism, and fed into both Islamic and Christian folklore at opposite edges of the Iranian plateau.

It’s still a fair distance from the Caucasus to England. But St George’s transformation into England’s patron saint was apparently an indirect consequence of the Crusades. The warrior saint’s tomb and cult centre was at Lydda in the Holy Land, and the town, known as St George by the Crusaders, remained under Christian control for most of the following two centuries. This brought him a growing following in Western Europe, and he slowly rose to prominence in England, although it was not until Edward III established the Order of the Garter in 1348, with St George as its patron and St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle as its home, that the association of “England and St George” was fixed for good.

Back in Bamiyan, that geothermal dragon has in the past received a lot of attention from archaeologists trying to reconstruct the Buddhist history of the valley. One popular theory was that this roughly 1,000-foot long geological formation was the very same as the fabled 1,000-foot “Parinirvana” Buddha (the Buddha lying on his deathbed, at the point of achieving ultimate release) mentioned by our best witness to Bamiyan in its Buddhist period, the seventh-century Chinese monk and traveller Xuanzang. It’s a tempting idea, but also unlikely: as a rule Xuanzang is impressively accurate in his topographical detail, and he locates the 1,000-foot Buddha a couple of miles to the east of Bamiyan, not five miles to the west. As for the gigantic size of the Buddha he saw, it’s probably nothing more dramatic than a corruption that has crept into the text of Xuanzang’s account.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Azhdaha wasn’t also a cult site when Bamiyan was Buddhist. So deep were the roots of this myth that when Buddhism came to what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan even the peaceable Buddha turned into a dragon fighter. Later in his journey Xuanzang visits Udyana (Swat), and recounts how a dragon had prevented the water of the river Swat reaching the crops of the valley people until the Buddha split the mountain with his diamond mace, the Vajra, cowed the dragon, and released the waters. It’s not impossible that a similar story was once told of the Dragon Valley in Bamiyan.

So are Hazrat-e Ali and St George so similar because they’re both really Feridun? I can’t personally think of a better explanation of such a striking coincidence. And while it’s easy to be disheartened by the way the tribes and religions of our world all line up behind their separate banners and champions, it’s perhaps quite heartening to ponder that those various competing heroes may all, basically, be one and the same

The year, versified


annuus exactis completur mensibus orbis

the cycle of the year, with the conclusion of the months, is completed

Virgil, Aeneid 5.46: Aeneas, in Sicily, is informing his men that he will stage games in honour of his dead father Anchises, and that exactly a year has passed since his father’s death, also in Sicily. That year has been taken up by the action described in Books 1 and 4, the Trojans’ stay in Carthage, and Aeneas’s affair with the Queen of Carthage, Dido.

Some individual lines of Virgil’s 10,000-line epic are themselves tiny works of art. Here the poet sets out to embody the character of a year in the shape of his metrical line, the key idea in play being that the year is circular, a cycle, orbis. Aeneid 5.46 is a linear disposition of Latin words, a poetic line, but also, by virtue of the disposition of those words, as close as a line of verse can get to a circle.

Here it is again with the relations between the words of the line highlighted: this being an inflected language, the words are connected by their form, not proximity.

(((annuus ((exactis (completur) mensibus)) orbis)))

The verb expressing the fulfilment of the year, completur, sits at the centre of the line, while the two words at its far extremes, annuus and orbis, are in agreement: “the yearly cycle”, “the cycle of the year.” Immediately bracketing completur are exactis and mensibus, and they too are in agreement: an ablative absolute, “with the conclusion of the months.”

The line is thus a sense unit organized into a perfectly concentric shape; like a hailstone, its components arranged around its central element. If the cycle of the year can be expressed in the form of a verse, this is it.

Faustum annum nouum!


The late, lamented P. Ovidius Naso


Very, VERY busy this term, and no time to blog. But one of the things making me busy is at least a pleasure to do, and that’s a graduate seminar on a book of Ovid’s exile poetry: Epistulae ex Ponto 4. This was the last book of poetry written by Ovid from exile, and thus the last poetry issued under his name, its sixteen poems ranging in date from AD 13 to 16, shortly before the poet’s death, in Tomis, modern Constanța in Romania, far away from the Rome for which, in five books of Tristia and four books Ex Ponto, the exiled poet had since AD 8 expressed his yearning.

My colleague, once upon my time my tutor, Stephen Harrison has done almost all of the organising of this seminar, and for an hour and a half every Thursday morning a mixture of graduates and teachers ponder the last poetry of perhaps the most influential of all ancient poets. Ovid’s exile poetry has always had a bit of an image problem, encouraged by Ovid himself, who constantly insists that his talents are on the wane in exile (he’ll be a much better poet if restored to Rome!). But what we’ve found ourselves reading in the last few weeks are as sophisticated as anything Ovid wrote, or so it seems to me. And something else: Ovid’s swan songs can also be extremely moving in their evocation of the experience and psychology of a Roman exile.

This last week we were looking at Ex Ponto 4.8, a poem addressed to the husband of Ovid’s step-daughter, P. Suillius Rufus, through whom Ovid also makes an appeal to Germanicus, by now (it is shortly after the death of Augustus in AD 14) heir apparent to the imperial throne. There is a Latin text and a translation of Ex Ponto 4.8 here.

I don’t think there’s anything I enjoy more than reading Roman poems for the first time, especially when they’re good. I need to keep this short (I’m still perfecting the art of writing a blog in two hours on a Sunday morning), but here are four thoughts I had about this poem when I first read it last Wednesday night, in the hopes they’ll illustrate some of the qualities I find in Ovid’s last poems.

Fine composition in the opening

The poem opens with the information that Suillius has written to Ovid, thereby providing Ovid with the pretext to write an answer in the shape of this poem. He begins,

Littera sera quidem, studiis exculte Suilli,
huc tua peruenit, sed mihi grata tamen

(“The letter you wrote, accomplished Suillius, was late/ in reaching here, but brought me pleasure.”) The lines contain a clear note of reproach: the letter Suillius wrote is welcome, but he took his time to write it. And Ovid subtly reinforces both the lateness (sera quidem) and the welcomeness (mihi grata tamen) of his son-in-law’s letter in his word placement: tua, “your”, is delayed until the second line, and placed next to huc, “[to] here.” This is Ovid exploiting the vastly more flexible word order of an inflected language (an English translation just can’t capture it): the displacement of key words portrays the arrival of the letter (in the juxtaposition of huc and tua), but the peculiar separation of tua from the noun it qualifies, littera, also conveys what a very long time it took to get to Tomi.

A vintage piece of Ovidian wit

By the time we get to lines 35-6, Ovid has moved from addressing Suillius to addressing Germanicus: strictly speaking, he’s telling Suillius what Suillius should in turn say to Germanicus, but it very quickly turns into a direct address to Germanicus (and after a while we probably forget he’s writing to Suillius at all). Here Ovid is asking Germanicus to relieve the harsh conditions of his exile. He will repay any kindness with all he can offer in return, his poetry, but in the presence of this powerful man he is self-effacing about its comparative value:

Parua quidem fateor pro magnis munera reddi,
cum pro concessa uerba salute damus.

(“Small indeed, I confess, is the gift given in return for great kindness,/ when I give words in return for a grant of salvation.”) “I give words” (uerba damus) is already an unglamorous way to describe writing poetry (no mystical inspiration here), but the expression uerba dare has another meaning (see the image at the top, from the Oxford Latin Dictionary), to cheat or swindle. Ovid is implying that poetry can only represent a dishonest exchange for tangible kindness, and that is quite typical of how sceptical this superlative poet became about the value of poetry after his exile. Clever, then, but also rather sad.

A bold illustration

By 51-4, Ovid has warmed to his theme, and is making more confident claims to Germanicus about the capacity of poetry. While physical memorials moulder, he insists, poetry, and the praise of men it contains, persists for all time. (Which happens, in this case, to be true.)

Scripta ferunt annos: scriptis Agamemnona nosti
et quisquis contra uel simul arma tulit.
Quis Thebas septemque duces sine carmine nosset
et quicquid post haec, quicquid et ante fuit?

(“Writing endures the years: through writing you know of Agamemnon,/ and whoever bore arms against him or with him./ Who would know of Thebes and the seven leaders if not for poetry,/ and whatever went after that, and before it?”) There is clarity in the first and third lines here: we are aware of two very specific mytho-historical phenomena, Agamemnon and the Seven against Thebes, because of poetry. But the second and four lines are as nebulous as the first and third are precise, and it seems to me that Ovid is provoking his readers (Germanicus especially, he hopes) to imagine how things would be without poetry: his vague “whoever” and “whatever” might be their state of knowledge about iconic stories like the Trojan War and the events surrounding the attack of the Seven. But in fact they had the Iliad to inform them of the first, and Sophocles among others to fill in the second (in Oedipus Rex and Antigone). In other words, we read the second and fourth lines, and in discovering that we can, in fact, fill in the blanks that Ovid leaves, we realise forcefully that it’s only poetry that makes it so.

Finally, real pathos

Ovid’s reputation is as a poet very good at provoking laughter, but too irreverent to be capable of pathos. But I’ve been regularly moved reading Ex Ponto 4, and the end of this poem is an example. My colleague Gail Trimble was leading the discussion of this part of the poem on Thursday, and described the last two lines as Ovid abruptly remembering that he’s writing to Suillius, not Germanicus. That’s spot on, I think. After 30 lines addressed to Suillius, and 58 to Germanicus, it is only in the very last couplet, almost as an afterthought, that he turns back to Suillius again:

Tangat ut hoc uotum caelestia, care Suilli,
numina, pro socero paene precare tuo.

(“That this prayer may touch the heavenly powers, dear Suillius,/ pray on behalf of him who is almost your father-in-law.”) This is Ovid standing back, and capturing his own psychology. He was so carried away with his desperate appeal that he forgot he wasn’t talking directly to Germanicus, only to Suillius. At the very end, though, all the more effectively for being unexpected (we have forgotten too), he remembers, and the return to reality is poignant. So far from being anything Germanicus may ever hear, let alone respond to, all this is just what Ovid hopes Suillius will communicate to him. And even Ovid’s power to influence Suillius in placed in doubt here: through the paene that Ovid drops into the final line, he is only nearly, not really, Suillius’ father-in-law.

It’s the same tenuous thread linking Ovid to his beloved Rome that we started with, a letter that came, but came late; a source of support that may not feel as much responsibility as the poet passionately wishes he would.

Royal flush

A post for the British School at Rome is here: thoughts on the weird fixation with the emperor Domitian’s complexion one finds in Statius, Martial, Tacitus and Pliny.

All you need is 0

I was due to deliver this on the radio but, I don’t know, something went wrong. Here it is, anyhow: a brisk five minute introduction to Roman numerals.

Aornos, a place of refuge

“If Aornos is Elam, a tale of exceptional military prowess becomes more like a story of the impact of war on civilian populations.”

Some thoughts on the nineteenth-century obsession with finding Aornos, the fortress stormed by Alexander the Great in 327/6 BC, over at The Nation