There’s a moment in Aeneid 11 when the politics of Virgil’s own time feel unusually close to the surface.
A council of the Latins has been called by King Latinus, and there’s a hostile exchange of speeches between Turnus, Aeneas’ great rival, and the troublemaker Drances. Despite the principle of my enemy’s enemy, Drances is not drawn by Virgil as an appealing character.
Two hundred lines are devoted to this council in the Latin city. But when Turnus ends his impassioned refutal of Drances, the focus turns to what Aeneas has been up to all this time (445-6):
Illi haec inter se dubiis de rebus agebant
certantes: castra Aeneas aciemque movebat.
Thus the Latins debated among themselves on matters they could not decide,
in competition: meanwhile Aeneas was advancing his camp and his battle line.
Aeneas’ action, so sharply contrasted with Latin debate, is expressed in less than a line, and yet what is described in those four words is a decisive step toward his conquest of the Latins. Virgil’s implication is clear, communicated by form as much as sense: Aeneas is the no-nonsense man of action; Turnus and the Latins just a bunch of ineffectual wafflers.
The resonances with Virgil’s own day here are strong. The indecisive exchange of speeches among the Latins suggests (a jaundiced view of) the political culture of the Republic, which could be dismissed as a time of unfettered expression and polarised political dispute, giving rise in turn to the conflict between citizens that had blighted Rome until Augustus put a stop to it. In Drances, particularly the way he is introduced at 336-42 (cf. Plut. Cic. 1.1), there seems to be a more specific allusion to the most celebrated practitioner of this old politics, the orator Cicero, and thus in his rhetorical conflict with Turnus a hint of Cicero’s famous (and fatal) series of attacks on Mark Antony, the Philippics. Aeneas’ military pragmatism, in contrast, is a model of the new, Augustan way of doing politics in Rome: decisive action by an individual, wasting no words and respecting no judgement but his own–autocracy, in a word.
Virgil may have expected his Roman readers to endorse this preference for deeds over words. But when the Latin council breaks up in panic as Aeneas’ advance is announced, what I see is civil society collapsing before military force, and it’s a moment I’ve been thinking about a lot during the parliamentary debates about Brexit. Many people are despairing of the “chaos” in the House of Commons, the MPs addicted to debate, incapable of reaching a consensus.
There’s plenty I’m unhappy about right now in UK politics, don’t get me wrong, but the sight of parliamentarians wrestling with their consciences in the most difficult political circumstances of recent times isn’t one of them. It would be stretching it to call the Roman Republic a democracy, but democracy is most definitely what we’re looking at in these indecisive parliamentary debates.
Yes, illi haec inter se dubiis de rebus agebant/ certantes, and all’s (still, essentially) right with the world.
Time is whatever it is.
But what a culture does with time, how it gets organised, can be one of the most revealing things about a culture. The books listed at the bottom of this post have lots of interesting things to say on the topic, but this is a blog about how the Romans organised time, and ultimately how the ordering of time became, like pretty much everything else that the Roman elite concerned themselves with, a means for political assertion and self-promotion.
(Quite a lot of what the Romans did with time is still with us, as it happens, too.)
I’m currently writing about the Fasti, Ovid’s poetic account of the Roman calendar (fasti is the closest Latin word to “calendar”). One book devoted to each month, the Fasti should have extended to twelve of them, but Ovid’s exile to the Black Sea in AD 8 did for that. As Ovid left it, the end of the poem arrives prematurely on the last day of June (the conclusion of the sixth book, in other words), exactly halfway through the year–a marked and meaningful place to end a poem that should have lasted the full twelve months. Ovid is doing his best to underline how unsatisfactory an ending it is, how much better a poem this would be if he could just be allowed home to finish it…
In one respect at least, though, the Fasti finds an appropriate place to wrap things up. June 30 was the foundation date for the Temple of Hercules of the Muses (aedes Herculis Musarum). Such cult birthdays were important material for Roman calendars, and the Temple of Hercules of the Muses, as well as boasting an impressively odd name, was one of the most culturally significant locations in the city of Rome, as we shall shortly see.
This final notice in Ovid’s Fasti celebrates the cult of Hercules of the Muses, focusing on the recent renovation of the temple by the emperor Augustus’ stepbrother, L. Marcius Philippus, in 29 BC, and on Philippus’ daughter, Marcia, who had connections both to the royal family and to Ovid’s wife–potentially useful to an exile. But as Ovid and his Roman readers were well aware, this temple had a rich history before 29 BC, and particular relevance for Ovid’s poem about time since it was intimately associated both with Roman poetry and with Roman timekeeping.
The temple of Hercules of the Muses had originally been dedicated in 184 BC or thereabouts by M. Fulvius Nobilior. He may in fact have simply added a portico for the Muses to an existing temple of Hercules (the details are contested), but at any rate Nobilior decorated this new foundation with statues of the Muses that he had looted on campaign in Aetolia, Greece, from a palace that had once belonged to Pyrrhus of Epirus, one of Rome’s most daunting enemies from a century earlier. Nobilior was thus a ruthless and successful Roman general, and at the same time a sensitive devotee of Greek high culture. Nobilior’s temple with its statues of the Greek goddesses of the creative arts encapsulates the paradox of Rome’s cultural conquest by the Greece it had conquered (to paraphrase Horace). Along with the nine Muses, furthermore, came a statue of Hercules realised as Musagetes, “Leader of the Muses”, strumming a lyre.
It appears that this temple became a meeting place for Roman poets under the gaze of their patron deities; and Cicero, in his defence of the poet Archias in 62 BC, cites Fulvius’ act of “dedicating the spoils of Mars to the Muses” as an instance of the inseparability of military heroics and poetry, part of his argument that martial achievement might as well not happen if there weren’t poets like Archias around to celebrate it. What drove the association of this temple with poetic activity most of all, though, was what a poet who had actually accompanied Nobilior on his campaigns in Greece did with it all. Q. Ennius was the national poet of Rome before Virgil came along, his epic poem Annales a history of Rome from the fall of Troy to his own day. But within this poem Ennius seems to have given special prominence to Nobilior’s temple. According to an influential reconstruction, Ennius’ account of Nobilior’s victory in Greece and the foundation of the cult of Hercules of the Muses rounded off the fifteenth and last book of the first edition of his epic.
But the connection between Ennius’ Annales and his patron’s temple goes even deeper. Ennius was the first Roman poet to actually call his Muses “Muses”, Musae, rather than using the Latin equivalent Camenae, and he opened the Annales with a line, Musae quae pedibus magnam pulsatis Olympum, “You Muses, who stamp great Olympus with your feet”, which simultaneously flaunted the Greek name he was using for the goddesses of song, and also the Greek form he was adopting for his poem: the Annales were the first Roman epic to be composed in what henceforth became the standard metre for this kind of poetry, dactylic hexameters. As for the Muses, the strong suspicion is that Ennius was drawing a parallel between himself and his patron Nobilior, implying a symbiosis of the military and poetic such as Cicero had identified: both of them, after all, Nobilior and Ennius, had brought the Muses back to Rome.
So much for Nobilior’s temple and poetry, but what about time, which I did after all claim was my main topic here?
Well, one of the most celebrated things about Nobilior’s establishment was a calendar that it housed, presumably painted on the wall somewhere, to all appearances an influential attempt to bring order to Roman time–Ovid’s Fasti was a distant descendant. It’s a safe bet that Ennius helped his patron in this project, since the poet displayed a special affinity for matters temporal: the very name of his epic, Annals, indicated the importance to the poem of the passage of years, anni. (There is an appealing theory that the dedication of Nobilior’s temple, according to Ennius’ calculation, fell exactly 1,000 years after the fall of Troy in 1184 BC.) Ovid’s Fasti, which plays extensively on a rivalry between Ovid and his predecessor Ennius, reflects this association of Ennius with time, and elsewhere the poet’s name lent itself to chronological puns like perennis used (indirectly) of Ennius at Lucretius 1.118, perennis meaning “through the years”, “everlasting”.
There may also have been in Nobilior’s temple an example of another thing, beside the calendar, for which the Romans used the word fasti, the only other thing, in fact: a list of consuls stretching back to the beginning of the Roman Republic in 509 BC which, since the Romans identified years by the names of that year’s consuls, was also a timeline complementing the calendrical fasti, a chronological thread connecting with the calendrical loop. (For the year as a circle, see here.) These two kinds of fasti were commonly combined on later monuments, for example in the earliest Roman calendar that survives, the so-called Fasti Antiates from Anzio. If, as seems likely, the calendar and consular list were first found combined in Nobilior’s temple, it follows that it’s probably to Nobilior that the convention of calling both of them fasti (a word that attaches more naturally to a calendar) can also be traced.
All of this, needless to say, makes the topic with which the Fasti prematurely ends, with its associations of poetry, time and the intersection of the two, an exceptionally apt place for a poem about time to, well, call time.
But a subsequent development, one that strikes me as an intensely satisfying moment, involves another patron of Ennius called Nobilior. Because there was still a piece missing in the story of the fasti, calendrical and consular. The year 153 BC was to a Roman Q. Fuluio Nobiliore T. Annio Lusco consulibus, “[The year] when Q. Fulvius Nobilior and T. Annius Luscus were consuls.” Quintus Fulvius Nobilior, the first-elected consul, and thus the first named in the dating formula, was the son of the Marcus Fulvius Nobilior who had established the temple of Hercules of the Muses, but Quintus was also in his own right a patron of Ennius, since on the evidence of Cicero (Brutus 79) he bestowed Roman citizenship on the poet by enrolling him in a colony he was establishing at Pisaurum on the east coast of Italy. That colony was founded in 184BC, so Q. Ennius achieved Roman citizenship, by his own reckoning, 1,000 years after the fall of Troy.
Time, and orderly patterns in time, as you may be gathering, mattered quite a lot to the Romans.
But the date of Q. Fulvius Nobilior’s consulship, 153 BC, has its own special significance, since this was the year when consuls first began to enter office on the date that would thenceforth become standard, the 1st of January. Hitherto consuls, reflecting their essentially military character, had been inaugurated on March 15, the beginning of the campaign season, or before that at more or less any time of the year.
The main impact of this shift to January 1 in terms of chronology (and this was surely actually the fundamental point of the reform) was to reconcile the two kinds of fasti, the yearly calendar and the list of consuls: both the year and the consulate now started on January 1, and that meant that historical time and calendrical time intersected. It had the further effect, incidentally, of enhancing the status of Janus, god of the year and of time and frankly the best god of the lot (you can find him at the bottom), on whose day the consuls now carried out their inaugural sacrifices. Janus came to be understood as the god of the consulate, and presided not only over the calendar that started in his month of January, but also over that historical timeline constituted by the consuls’ names.
It has been suggested that this move to January 1 was actually motivated by the influential combination of fasti in Nobilior’s temple, and that seems obviously true to me. But what I haven’t seen noted, though I can’t believe it hasn’t been pointed out by someone somewhere, is that it’s no coincidence that the first consul to enter office on January 1 was none other than the son of the founder of the aedes Herculis Musarum. Nobilior junior looks very much like he is putting into practice an implication of his father’s monument, applying the coordination of the two kinds of fasti to the real-time workings of the Roman res publica.
This all makes the management of Roman time look something like the family business of the Fulvii Nobiliores. Nobilior senior, aided by Mr Eternity himself, Ennius, formalizes the Roman year, and puts it up for all to see on the wall of his spanking new temple. His son Quintus then pursues the project of setting Roman time on a stable basis, and in an important sense properly realizes it, by synchronizing the beginning of the year with the entry to power of the eponymous consuls, in the process associating the arrangement with his own name in 153 BC.
Caesar’s radical reform of the Roman calendar tends to eclipse anything that went before it, but what a powerful piece of political theatre this must have been! At Q. Fulvius Nobilior’s inauguration, Rome experienced nothing less than time clicking into sync. What we seem to be looking at in the Nobiliores is a family of the Roman elite asserting its status and significance in Roman public life in a range of interesting ways, by military conquest, promotion of poetry and art of a Greek complexion–and by this responsibility they assume for the management of the city’s time. A later Roman family, the Julii, would achieve a similar familial status as timekeepers, alongside a couple of other things. Julius Caesar’s reform (still the basis of our calendar today, after some fine-tuning of leap years by Pope Gregory), which came into use in 45BC, was picked up by his adopted son Augustus, who corrected a misapplication of Caesar’s original mechanism and also renamed the months of Quintilis and Sextilis July (after his father) and August (after himself). Was Augustus’ model Q. Fulvius Nobilior?
Returning at length to Ovid’s Fasti, though. Its premature conclusion, I’ve suggested (like many before me), is in its way highly appropriate. But most apt of all to Ovid’s poem, a playful take on the Roman year that always resists the inherent seriousness of the topic, is the Hercules of the aedes Herculis Musarum himself.
This Hercules is the image with which we leave the poem: sic cecinit Clio, doctae adsensere sorores;/ adnuit Alcides increpuitque lyram, “So sang Clio, and her learned sisters assented;/ Hercules nodded his agreement and struck the lyre.” We are lucky enough to have a series of coins minted by Q. Pomponius Musa, who, apparently by way of a pun on his own name, reproduced the statues of the nine Muses from Nobilior’s temple, and Hercules himself. He wears the skin of the Nemean Lion, and has his club by his side, but he strums the lyre and with his sinuous physique is as unheroic a realisation of the god as one could imagine.
As such, though, this Hercules is very true to the poetics of Ovid’s Fasti, as well as to the poem’s preoccupation with time.
Everything here apart from Q. Fulvius Nobilior’s role in things and Hercules Musarum’s elegiac sinuousness (?) is filched from one or other of the following scholars:
J. Elliott, Ennius and the architecture of the Annales (2013);
D.C. Feeney, Caesar’s calendar (2007);
I. Gildenhard, “The ‘Annalist’ before the Annalists: Ennius and his Annales“, in U. Eigler, U. Gotter, N. Luraghi and U. Walter (eds.), Formen römischer Geschichtsschreibung von den Anfängen bis Livius (2003), 93-114;
R.J. Littlewood, A commentary on Ovid’s Fasti, Book 6 (2006);
J. Rüpke, The Roman calendar from Numa to Constantine (2011);
O. Skutsch, Studia Enniana (1968).
A minor thought, even by my standards, which struck me between preparing a tutorial and rehearsing this, but to catch such random ideas was one of my original points in blogging, so…
An archetypal image from the Aeneid is Aeneas’ escape from Troy in the dead of night, bearing his aged father Anchises on his shoulders and holding his son by the hand, while his wife Creusa follows at a fateful distance behind the group of men (Aen. 2.721-6):
haec fatus latos umeros subiectaque colla
ueste super fuluique insternor pelle leonis,
succedoque oneri; dextrae se paruus Iulus
implicuit sequiturque patrem non passibus aequis; 725
pone subit coniunx.
With these words I spread over my broad shoulders
and bowed neck the covering of a tawny lion’s skin
and take up my burden; little Iulus entwined
his own hand in mine and follows his father with unequal steps. 725
Behind trails my wife.
The scene was already celebrated in antiquity, recreated in sculptural form in the Forum of Augustus at Rome among other Roman heroes like Romulus, from which derive depictions in images and visual parodies from Pompeii.
Specifically, it was 724-5, describing Aeneas’ son, known alternately as Ascanius or Iulus, that caught my attention. Non passibus aequis, “with unequal steps”, now a proverbial expression, is in context a vivid and poignant reminder of the boy’s age and vulnerability as his family flees the captured city. Meanwhile Ascanius’ alternate name Iulus is, here as elsewhere, a means for Virgil to link Aeneas and the Julii family to which Augustus belonged (for his importance in Julian family lore, there’s a bit more here). It appears that Virgil gives the boy special emphasis in his account. At the top of this post there is a coin of Julius Caesar, Augustus’ adoptive father, depicting Aeneas’ escape, and it includes his father on his shoulders, but no son, even though that son was crucial to Julius Caesar’s ancestral claim. In Caesar’s image Aeneas’ spare hand is holding the palladium, the talismanic statue of Athena/Minerva that, housed in the Temple of Vesta, would protect the future city of Rome.
Well, what struck me about Virgil’s description of Iulus on this, the umpteenth, occasion of reading it is a subtle shift in perspective in line 725, and perhaps another way of lending the boy the slightest boost in status. This is all within Aeneas’ narrative of the fall of Troy to Queen Dido in Carthage, and Aeneas describes the physical process of picking up his father from his own viewpoint, similarly introducing his son in 724 taking hold of his hand. Then in 726 Aeneas describes his wife’s position at the rear, again as if viewing her himself. But in 725 we seem to catch just a glimpse of a different perspective and consciousness, that of little Iulus himself. It all hinges on the word patrem. The only person properly capable of seeing Aeneas as “father”, after all, is Iulus, and the word thus momentarily gives us access to Iulus’ subjectivity.
A very subtle effect, for sure, and I’m here obviously indebted to Don Fowler’s classic article “Deviant focalisation in Vergil’s Aeneid” (PCPhS 36, 1990, 42-63), in which he investigates moments when Virgil implicitly conveys a point of view at variance with that of the narrator (hence “deviant”). In Book 2 Aeneas is the narrator, but here, with patrem, his son’s viewpoint intrudes itself, for a second, into Aeneas’ account.
Just for a second, though? It might be worth wondering if non passibus aequis is also the boy’s perception, and it would be nice: not just a vivid image of a small child, if so, but that child’s own viewpoint, Iulus himself aware that his legs are not as long as Aeneas’s, Iulus who by implication is striving to keep pace with his father.
Whether we see that as the boy’s point of view or not (and we certainly don’t have to), this scene deftly characterises the male characters of Aeneas’ family, critical in this poem as the ancestors of Augustus and of the Romans. Anchises is authoritative (in Virgil’s version he carries with him the gods of Troy) but physically weak, while Aeneas is by implication as impressive a warrior as Hercules (the lion skin he drapes over his shoulders, and the burden he assumes, point strongly to the Greek hero, for which see more here). As for Ascanius, we can see a boy as far removed from Aeneas’ heroism by youth as Anchises is by age, in any case completing a powerful tableau of past, present and future (from which, again, the mother is pointedly excluded). At the very least the word patrem establishes Aeneas’ claim to an important status marker in this poem and in Roman life more generally. A theme of Books 1 and 2 of the Aeneid is Aeneas’ growth into the role as pater, leader of the family, initially overshadowed by his father Anchises. Here patrem reminds us of Aeneas’ own potential to be the pater familias, head of the family and by extension of the Trojan people as they turn into Romans, a national hero fully realised.
Maybe that’s all this momentary shift to Iulus’ point of view is designed to achieve, identifying Aeneas as a father in his own right as his carries his father. But I do like the possibility that we also catch here just a glimpse of Iulus’ own nascent heroism, a third generation consciously measuring himself against his father, aspiring to match his manly pace, the boy who will build on Aeneas’ victory in Italy and ensure not only the foundation of Rome, but the preeminence within it of Augustus, father of the nation, pater patriae.
“That there was an art of making statues established in Italy also, and from an early date, is indicated by the Hercules dedicated in the Forum Boarium (Cattle Market), so they say, by Evander, who is called the triumphal Hercules and is dressed in triumphal clothes when triumphs are being celebrated; and also by the statue of Twin-faced Janus dedicated by king Numa, who is worshipped as presiding over peace and war, with his fingers so arranged as to indicate, by the sign of three hundred and sixty-five days, that he is also the god of time.”
A paragraph from Pliny the Elder (Hist. Nat. 34.33) which caught my attention a few months ago. There’s nothing original in what follows, but I’m thinking, on and off, about Hercules (Heracles, Verethragna, Vajrapani…), and this clarified some things for me about Hercules in Rome. There is no reason on Earth why my noodlings should be of any interest to you, needless to say.
Specifically, I was thinking, as I often do, about Hercules in Virgil’s Aeneid.
In Book VIII of Virgil’s epic Aeneas visits the future site of Rome, and is welcomed and entertained by the Greek king Evander, the alleged dedicator (Pliny is clearly sceptical) of that statue, who has settled there. Evander’s son Pallas will be crucial to the rest of the plot, his death at the hands of Turnus motivating Aeneas’ culminating revenge. But a lengthy section of this book is taken up by Evander’s account to Aeneas of Hercules’ exploits at Rome, how he had visited the site as he was herding the cattle of Geryon from Spain back to Argos, his tenth Labour, and slain a monstrous bandit called Cacus who was terrorizing Evander’s people.
Hercules is worshipped as a god by Evander (he has in the interim died and been deified), and it turns out that Aeneas has arrived on the very day of the festival of Hercules, suggesting a parallel between Aeneas and Hercules that Virgil periodically activates in the course of the poem. This festival, celebrated in Virgil’s day at the Ara Maxima, the shrine of Hercules in the Forum Boarium, fell on August 12, and that date opens up an entirely different dimension of significance.
Book VIII will end with the scene of Augustus’ Triple Triumph in 29 B.C., as represented by Vulcan on the shield he has forged for Aeneas. The triumph was a spectacular procession of troops, captives and spoils through Rome, staged by a successful Roman general, himself dressed in impressive clothing and riding in a chariot. In 29 Augustus celebrated triumphs, for military victories in Dalmatia and then over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and in Egypt, on three consecutive days, August 13, 14 and 15. Augustus thus formally arrived at Rome, in preparation for these processions, on the day that Aeneas first comes to Rome, according to Virgil, but also the day on which Hercules had rid the city of the scourge of Cacus, and on which his delivery of Rome was to be celebrated thereafter. Denis Feeney (Caesar’s Calendar p.162) calls this a kind of wormhole, times widely separated, in the case of Hercules or Aeneas and Augustus by a thousand years, but identified in Roman minds by the sanctity of the day. It’s clear enough that Augustus had timetabled his triumphs so as to associate himself with Hercules in his role as Rome’s saviour, and that Virgil is elaborating on that.
What Pliny’s information about the statue of Hercules gives us is further reason for Augustus to align his own arrival in Rome with Hercules’s. What we learn from that “Triumphal Hercules” at the Ara Maxima, supposedly dedicated by Evander himself, and dressed up in the same elaborate clothing as a triumphing general during his triumph, is that Hercules could be understood to be the original triumphator, the model for every triumphing general, and that Augustus was in this respect as well something like a reincarnation of Hercules as he processed through the streets of Rome in 29 B.C.
As I say, there’s nothing remotely new about any of these observations. Here, for example, is Matthew Loar batting around similar ideas in greater depth and with much greater sophistication. What follows, furthermore, is provoked by a rereading on my part of Mary Beard’s The Roman Triumph, and some hints there of the depth of the connections Romans came to perceive, and Virgil was able to exploit, between Hercules and the triumph. It seems clear, at any rate, or at least clearer to me than it used to, that the very name of Hercules could evoke the triumphal ceremony. Horace in one of his Odes, 3.14, welcomes Augustus returning from campaign in Spain “in the manner of Hercules”, Herculis ritu, suggesting the Hercules who had also come to Rome from that direction, but also bestowing on Augustus’ arrival something of the character of a triumph.
What Mary’s book made me think of more, though, was food. There is a persistent association, albeit hard to pin down in detail, between Hercules, the triumph, and feasting. Athenaeus, citing the Stoic philosopher Posidonius, a visitor to Rome in the first century B.C., describes a feast at Hercules’s shrine (presumably the Ara Maxima), laid on by the triumphing general, the generosity of which, Posidonius remarked, was itself “Heraclean” in the provision of wine and food (Deipnosophistae 4, 153c; cf. 5, 221f). There seems to be some connection here to a ritual described by Plutarch (Roman Questions 18) whereby wealthy men would gift 10% of their wealth to Hercules at the Ara Maxima by throwing a massive dinner for Roman male citizens (women were forbidden access to the Ara Maxima).
Quite what the connecting threads were between the dinners at Hercules’ shrine and the triumphal dinners is elusive, but one thing all this emphasis on feasting illustrates is a fundamental, and fascinating, tension in the Greco-Roman perception of this, their greatest, hero. Hercules was a god-like bringer of peace and order, but Hercules was also an all-too-human and notorious carouser, according to Plutarch somehow both gluttonous (ἀδηφάγος) and frugal in his lifestyle (ἀπέριττος τῷ βίῳ).
At the Ara Maxima in Rome he was all of these things, on the one hand one of Rome’s many founder figures (like Romulus, and Aeneas himself), and on the other the instigator of unrestrained self-indulgence. Propertius 4.9, which playfully continues Hercules’ story in Aeneid VIII after his conquest of Cacus, exploits this contrast to comic effect, depicting a Hercules ravenous with thirst after his exertions begging for entry to the shrine of the Bona Dea, a sanctuary that excluded men (just as his shrine excluded women). The statue in the photo above is from Alba Fucens in Central Italy (now in the Museo archeologico nazionale d’Abruzzo in Chieti), a cult of Hercules closely related to that in the Forum Boarium (involving a further dimension of Hercules, as a god of commerce, but that’s another story). He strikes a relaxed pose, wine cup in his left hand (perhaps the wooden scyphus that Servius at Aen. 8.278 tells us Hercules brought with him to Italy) and garland on his head.
It is with feasting at the Ara Maxima in honour of Hercules that the day ends in Aeneid 8, too, before Evander leads Aeneas through Rome-before-Rome to Evander’s simple hut on the Palatine hill. This feasting is seemingly as strong an allusion to triumphal ritual as anything else.
Was it a statue like the one from Alba Fucens, Hercules relaxed and tipsy, that was decked out in the elaborate gear of a triumphing general, I wonder? It would capture something essential about this culture hero if it was.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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