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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

Scene, a Cave

One line of Virgil’s Aeneid out of a total of around 10,000:

speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem

But the Aeneid is so intricately composed that every single line of it is potentially a miniature masterpiece in itself. This is my current favourite, anyhow.

Actually I’m cheating, because this one is strictly speaking two lines, first used at Aeneid 4.124 and then repeated, unchanged, at 165. The first time, it’s spoken by the goddess Juno as she explains to Venus her plan to unite the Trojan visitors with their Carthaginian hosts and hence neutralise the threat that Aeneas, through his descendants, poses to her beloved Carthage. She will raise a storm as they hunt, she tells Venus, and “Dido and the Trojan leader will take refuge in the same cave,” where Juno, the goddess of marriage, will join them in wedlock: speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem/ deuenient. When the line returns, it is in the voice of the narrator, the only change being the tense of the verb that rounds off the sentence in the following line, a present tense in place of Juno’s future as the goddess’s prediction is realised. The Trojans and Carthaginians gather for the hunt, a storm breaks, and “Dido and Aeneas take refuge in the same cave,” speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem/ deueniunt.

Everything about these six words is exquisite, if I’m honest, but let’s start with the very fact it’s repeated, because that in itself is a powerful narrative device, effortlessly achieved. Virgil likes to manipulate his readers’ sense of human free will. Throughout the Dido story we’re forced to wonder where the agency lies: are Dido and Aeneas falling in love as any humans might, or are they the puppets of higher forces? Here Juno sets out to Venus how she will arrange matters, but after that scene in heaven the narrative shifts back to the human level, and we’re distracted by a sequence of compelling descriptions of human activity, the magnificent preliminaries to the royal hunt, the superlative beauty of Aeneas and Dido especially (Aeneas is equated to the god Apollo), and then the excitement of the hunt itself. It has only been forty lines, but in that time the power of Virgil’s storytelling has made us forget the gods’ role in events, lulling us into accepting a strictly human frame of reference. Then suddenly that line returns, the narrator repeating the precise words of Juno; and we realise that events are happening exactly as Juno had predicted they would. The illusion of mortal freedom and dignity is shattered, and it’s a terrifying moment.

But what about the line itself? Even if there weren’t that wonderful effect in store, we could forgive Virgil for repeating it, since he makes it communicate far more than any line should. For starters, he exploits the flexibility of Latin word order to create a verbal image of the scene: the words for the cave, speluncam … eandem, “in the same cave” or perhaps “in the cave together”, surround “Dido and the Trojan leader” (Dido dux et Troianus) just as the cave encompasses the two lovers: a line of verse is made, as far as a line of verse can be made, to look like the restricted space of a cave. I’ve always felt that this famous image from a fifth-century manuscript of Virgil, the Vergilius Romanus, the lovers squeezed into a very cosy-looking cubicle, was inspired by the structure of Virgil’s line.

But if the cave is evoked by meticulous word placement, so is the relationship between the couple within it. Something that Virgil constantly plays on in the Dido story is the anxiety he knows Romans are bound to feel at the idea of their founding father emotionally entangled with the queen of Carthage. There are levels to this anxiety, none of them reflecting well on the Romans: at the most basic, a Roman male would feel threatened by the very notion of a man surrendering his emotional autonomy to a woman, and Virgil works on this fear expertly here. By pushing apart the words we translate as “Trojan leader”, dux et Troianus, and allowing the word for leader, dux, to sit next to Dido’s name, Dido dux et Troianus, Virgil introduces an ambiguity into the line: momentarily we think that the dominant figure in this relationship, the leader, is Dido, not Aeneas, and we’re more prepared to do so because Dido has been presented by Virgil as a charismatic leader of her people (from a Roman perspective a highly paradoxical, female leader) ever since her first introduction to the poem: Venus, recounting Dido’s achievements to Aeneas when he first arrives at Carthage in Book 1, tells him that dux femina facti, “a woman was the leader of the enterprise.” Here in Book 4, as I say, the effect is momentary: when we get to Troianus we know it’s an adjective and it needs a noun to qualify: the “leader” is the “Trojan” Aeneas. But the idea has been broached that Aeneas is not embodying the masculine dominance that Romans expected of their heroes.

But Dido and Aeneas aren’t just any old woman and man, of course. They are the founder of Carthage and the founder-to-be of Rome, in other words representatives of two cities which would in historical times fight the Punic Wars to decide which of them controlled the Mediterranean basin. To Romans the Carthage founded by Dido could only be the city that produced Hannibal, the city that almost destroyed their own, and which Rome felt had to be destroyed to ensure their own survival (delenda est Carthago, as Cato the Censor used to put it). That struggle was still a strong folk memory in Virgil’s day. Long after Hannibal’s death he was a bogeyman Roman mothers used to get their kids to eat their greens, just as Boney was in England for a long time after the Napoleonic Wars. One of the very strangest things about Virgil’s account of Carthage is how sympathetic and appealing he chose to make a place that his readers were conditioned to regard as irredeemably malevolent. An alliance between the Trojans and Carthaginians, even an amalgamation of the two peoples, is repeatedly mooted, explicitly and implicitly, in Virgil’s Carthage episode, but the poet knows that that the notion of Rome’s ancestors contributing to the gene pool of their sworn enemies is anathema to his Roman readers.

Well, contributing to the Carthaginian gene pool is one way of describing what Aeneas is up to in that cave. What we need to appreciate is how wrong in principle such a relationship would have seemed to Roman eyes.

So Virgil’s intricate word order suggests a man losing control of his destiny, ceding leadership to a woman. But it is a Roman man we are dealing with, and a Carthaginian woman, and that increases the offensiveness of the scene significantly. What occurred to me in the middle of a school talk last week (it was late on a Friday, so forgive me) was that all of this Roman anxiety about Aeneas’ shenanigans in Carthage could be boiled down to a fear of muddying the clear distinction that had to be maintained between Trojans/Romans and Carthaginians, and this is what I think is most troubling about the line: Virgil presents us with characters whose proper roles are confused, but more fundamentally with a couple so intimately involved that they can’t clearly be distinguished.

Now one thing to say is, again, that the sharp differentiation of Roman and Carthaginian was critical to a Roman sense of Romanness to a degree that we can’t any longer appreciate. This is a scene bound to outrage the sensibilities of the male Romans who were Virgil’s primary audience, then. But it also seems to me that this is yet another respect in which Virgil’s line is reflecting in its verbal shape the scene it depicts, in other words that there’s something very suggestive about the intertwining of the (words for the) lovers in this cave-like line. Virgil is notoriously oblique about what does happen in the cave, but I’d say that the word order gives the game away clearly enough.

Of course, Latinists don’t need to be told how sexy the word order of an inflected language can be.

The Rubaiyat of Mods

I haven’t blogged in far too long, and what’s mainly to blame is the examining I’m currently doing. In March every year Oxford Classics students take their notoriously challenging first examinations, Honour Moderations in Classics (or Classics Mods for short).This is the last year of my three-year stint as a Moderator, an examiner of Mods, and tomorrow is the final day of two weeks of examinations. Students will celebrate; and I and my fellow Moderators will get down to grading it all.

Well, to mark this important day, a very rare thing: a poem on the subject of Honour Moderations in Classics. It was written at the end of the nineteenth century by one of my predecessors as a Moderator, A. D. Godley.

Godley was a Classics don at Magdalen College, Oxford from 1883 to 1912, and although he produced some works of scholarship (Socrates, and Athenian Society in his Age, and you’re reading Godley if you’re reading the Loeb translation of Herodotus), he’s best known as the author of humorous verse, which he published in the Oxford Magazine and elsewhere, and issued in collections such as Verses to Order (1892 & 1904) and Lyra Frivola (1899). His most celebrated poem is “The Motor Bus”, in which he treats the words “motor” and “bus” as if they’re third and second declension Latin nouns: What is this that roareth thus?/ Can it be a Motor Bus?/ Yes, the smell and hideous hum/ Indicat Motorem Bum! etc.

But from Lyra Frivola comes the Rubaiyyat of Moderations, another extremely donnish (but also at times rather funny) parody of what was perhaps the most popular (and most parodied) poetic collection of the nineteenth century, Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, his version of the poetry of this eleventh/twelfth-century Persian polymath.

So you’ll find here Godley’s parodies of Fitzgerald’s

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!


The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

There’s quite a lot of late nineteenth-century university slang here, so here’s a short glossary before you start:

“Schools”: the Examination Schools in Oxford, where students sat Mods in 1899 and still do today;

“plough”: a fail;

“gulf”: an unclassified result, i.e. below a third but not a fail: a “pass”;

“mucker”: a heavy fall; “to go a mucker” is to come a cropper, to come to grief;

In stanzas II and III I think the joke hangs on the examination fee paid by candidates in order to enter the exam, but I’d welcome any better ideas.



  Wake! for the Nightingale upon the Bough

  Has sung of Moderations: ay, and now

    Pales in the Firmament above the Schools

  The Constellation of the boding Plough.


  I too in distant Ages long ago

  To him that ploughed me gave a Quid or so:

    It was a Fraud: it was not good enough;

  Ne’er for my Quid had I my Quid pro Quo.


  Yet–for the Man who pays his painful Pence

  Some Laws may frame from dark Experience:

    Still from the Wells of harsh Adversity

  May Wisdom draw the Pail of Common Sense–


  Take these few Rules, which–carefully rehearsed–

  Will land the User safely in a First,

    Second, or Third, or Gulf: and after all

  There’s nothing lower than a Plough at worst.


  Plain is the Trick of doing Latin Prose,

  An Esse Videantur at the Close

    Makes it to all Intents and Purposes

  As good as anything of Cicero’s.


  Yet let it not your anxious Mind perturb

  Should Grammar’s Law your Diction fail to curb:

    Be comforted: it is like Tacitus:

  Tis mostly done by leaving out the Verb.


  Mark well the Point: and thus your Answer fit

  That you thereto all Reference omit,

    But argue still about it and about

  Of This, and That, and T’Other–not of It.


  Say, why should You upon your proper Hook

  Dilate on Things which whoso cares to look

    Will find, in Libraries or otherwhere,

  Already stated in a printed Book?


  Keep clear of Facts: the Fool who deals in those

  A Mucker he inevitably goes:

    The dusty Don who looks your Paper o’er

  He knows about it all–or thinks he knows.


  A Pipe, a Teapot, and a Pencil blue,

  A Crib, perchance a Lexicon–and You

    Beside him singing in a Wilderness

  Of Suppositions palpably untrue–


  ‘Tis all he needs: he is content with these:

  Not Facts he wants, but soft Hypotheses

    Which none need take the Pains to verify:

  This is the Way that Men obtain Degrees!


  ‘Twixt Right and Wrong the Difference is dim:

  ‘Tis settled by the Moderator’s Whim:

    Perchance the Delta on your Paper marked

  Means that his Lunch has disagreed with him:


  Perchance the Issue lies in Fortune’s Lap:

  For if the Names be shaken in a Cap

    (As some aver) then Truth and Fallacy

  No longer signify a single Rap.


  Nay! till the Hour for pouring out the Cup

  Of Tea post-prandial calls you home to sup,

    And from the dark Invigilator’s Chair

  The mild Muezzin whispers “Time is Up”–


  The Moving Finger writes: then, having writ,

  The Product of your Scholarship and Wit

    Deposit in the proper Pigeonhole–

  And thank your Stars that there’s an End of it!