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Many moons ago, offered an apple by a generous stranger in Afghanistan, I attempted to show off my limited Persian vocabulary. “Seeb!”, I said; “seb”, he corrected me, firmly. As later explained to me by Edmund Herzig, this was a good illustration of how Dari, Afghan Persian, preserves many older features of the language, and in particular retains sounds lost in the Iranian Persian that I had learned a little of. The word for “apple”, سیب, is in standard Iranian Persian “seeb”, but in Afghan Persian (and also in my nineteenth-century Persian dictionary) “seb”.

A parallel example, and the subject of this blog, is the word شیر, “sheer/sher”, which means three distinct things, lion(/tiger, cf. Shere Khan in the Jungle Book), milk or tap. In all of those meanings it is pronounced “sheer” in the Iranian Persian I studied, while in Afghan (and some Iranian) Persian the word for lion is pronounced “sher” (to sound like “share”; thanks to Roh Yakobi for helping me here). So in Afghan Persian شیر meaning “milk” and شیر meaning “lion” are homographs but not homophones, terms distinguishable in pronunciation, but not on the page. I’ll explain in a while why this is currently interesting me, but first a couple of illustrations of the play that the similarity and difference of شیر and شیر have encouraged.

The first was given me by Lindsay Allen, a reliable source of fascinating information about Iran. In this case it was that rare thing, Farsi on US network television. A very funny running gag in the comedy series 30 Rock, a TV programme about a TV programme, is an inexplicably successful gameshow called Homonym, where guests are asked which of the meanings of a word spoken by the host is meant, and always pick the wrong one. Homonym is succeeded by Celebrity Homonym, of course, and then becomes “the first US TV show to be broadcast in Iran”:

Presenter: “Next word: sheer, sheer.”

Contestant: “Sure: sheer, like a big cat.”

Presenter: “No, it’s the other one.”

Contestant: “Damn you!” (Lit. “Soil on your head!”)

Clearly the gag here depends on the Iranian Persian for “lion” and “milk” (or “tap”) sounding the same, “sheer”. But another illustration illustrates the potential offered by older pronunciation.

In Rumi’s Masnavi-ye Ma‘navi, considered one of the greatest works of mystical literature, we find the following couplet in a passage insisting on the superior spiritual status of the Sufi saint (1.263):

کار پاکان را قیاس از خود مگیر گر چه ماند در نبشتن شیر و شیر

‘Do not assess the deeds of the pure by analogy with yourself,/ though “lion” and “milk” are similar in writing.’

“Lion” and “milk” are both written شیر , but there would have been no ambiguity in meaning in the thirteenth century when Rumi was dictating his poetry since “sher” and “sheer” were as clearly distinguished in pronunciation as they still are in Afghanistan. The second شیر has to rhyme with the end of the previous half-line, “mageer”, so is “milk”; the first شیر must be “lion”. Furthermore, Rumi’s point clearly hangs on the difference in pronunciation: things may seem similar at the level of appearance, but are in a deeper sense as different as a big cat and milk. A speaker of contemporary standard Persian might not understand the line automatically, however, as for them the similarity of the words for lion and milk is not just a matter of their appearance on the page.

(A kind of riddling quatrain seems to have become associated with this moment in the Masnavi, though it’s not by Rumi. It takes the ambiguity of شیر “milk” and شیر “lion”, and expands on it:

آن یکی شیر است اندر بادیه  وآن دگر شیر است اندر بادیه/ آن یکی شیر است که آدم می خورد  وآن دگر شیر است که آدم می خورد

This combines the ambiguous شیر with other ambiguous words and phrases, so is a challenge to translate. The important thing to appreciate is that you can reverse the order of each half-line: “This one is a شیر in the desert,/ and the other’s a شیر in a jug./ One’s a شیر that’s a man-eater,/ and the other’s a شیر that man eats.”)

It’s time to reveal my interest in this piece of linguistic trivia. In collaboration with an Italian archaeologist of Swat in N-W Pakistan, Luca Olivieri, I’m working on a study of a “Political”, a diplomatic officer of the British Raj, named Harold Deane. From 1895 to 1901 Deane was in charge of the Malakand Agency, essentially in control of relations between the British and the unoccupied territories beyond the official border. So successful was he establishing and maintaining the British toehold at Malakand, the point of access to the Swat Valley, that in 1901 he was promoted by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, to be the first Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province, when the latter was first established. Deane was as tough a customer as that abbreviated CV might imply.

But in an 1896 article in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Deane also has a decent claim to have inaugurated the archaeological exploration of Swat, which through the work of such figures as Aurel Stein and Giuseppe Tucci and the Missione Archeologica Italiana in Pakistan has brought to light remarkable things in the last century. (Deane was close to Aurel Stein, who dedicated On Alexander’s Track to the Indus to him.) The military/intelligence role of this Political Agent and his archaeological interests were essentially indistinguishable: sites were investigated during military campaigns and information about archaeological remains were communicated by agents maintained in the independent territories. But his antiquarian interests also speak to the education and cultural horizons of the men who administered British India’s N-W frontier: Deane’s ground-breaking article ends with his observations on the location of Aornos, scene of one of Alexander’s most celebrated exploits. All in all, Deane represents an interesting figure in his own day and in ours, as we hope to show.

The dedication of Aurel Stein’s account of his exploration of Swat, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus

Deane died in 1908, in his mid-fifties. Whatever else his job was, it wasn’t good for the health. But he had a big fan in Olaf Caroe, himself Governor of NWFP half a century later. In his book The Pathans (1958, 421-2 and 456), Caroe offers a pen sketch of a man he saw as a model of an Imperial frontier operative (the accounts that follow of George Roos-Keppel and Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum are very interesting, too). In the passage that follows, Caroe contrasts Deane, an administrator actively engaged with the people he governed and thus ideal for the frontier, with a more conventional bureaucrat who happened to share a similar name:

“Later, Deane was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Peshawar at a time when the revenue settlement of that district was being undertaken by Louis Dane, an officer of great distinction who in due course became Lieutenant-Governor of the Panjab, but whose lot lay always in pleasant places. Dane’s spiritual home was in Simla and Lahore. One day a naive young Khan [member of the landowning class] in a Peshawar hujra [a guest house, but see this], puzzled by the similarity of names, asked one of the Khalil Arbabs [chiefs] what was the difference between Din and Den. The answer came: “The same as between Shir and Sher, only the other way round.” A pretty jest.”

Deane is the “sher”, Dane the “sheer”. Here I go nose-to-nose with a fellow Classicist, as Olaf Caroe was (perhaps not so unexpectedly) a graduate in Classics from Magdalen College, Oxford. He offers two explanations of the Arbab‘s joke, but clearly favours the first: “sheer” is the Persian/Iranian way of pronouncing the word for lion, “sher” the Afghan, and the Afghans “despise the Persians as soft creatures.” Thus Deane is a tough lion, Dane a soft one.

But I prefer the other interpretation, partly because it is clearly quite a cliché among Persian speakers. We never leave the borderlands of Afghanistan, where “sher” is a lion and “sheer” is milk. Deane is a lion; while Dane is no lion at all, but a milksop.

A nice illustration in itself of that peculiar frontier combination of intellect and machismo.

Time out

I had an oddly unsettling experience on Christmas Day. I was standing on a bridge over the local canal, looking down at the canal path. As I stood there, a passing jogger slowed, stopped and stood beside me. When I moved on, so did she in the opposite direction. In retrospect, of course, I realised that she had been concerned I was planning to do something drastic, and I can see how a middle-aged man in a beanie contemplating the canal on Christmas Day might look that way. The jogger was taking no chances, and how very, very impressive that was, whoever you are.

In actual fact what I was doing on that bridge was getting a better view of something I’ve only passed in darkness with the dog, a new, tarmac path the council have been laying alongside the canal. I’ve never had suicidal thoughts or even suffered depression, and in that I know how lucky I am. But I was there on my own on Christmas Day, and this fact still demands some explanation.

Our elder son has special needs, and at home on Christmas morning the stress was considerable. As I tried to explain to our younger son, Christmas can be difficult enough for anyone. But if, like Will, you don’t fully understand money or ownership, among other things, and find it quite impossible to wait for anything you want, a festival at which you’re told you can have anything but not everything, and things like Amazon giftcards arrive that are in lieu of something else that isn’t there, well, it can get quite challenging. Christmas morning was tricky, and when I realised that I had become the focus of Will’s anxiety, I took myself out of the situation for an hour to allow him (and myself) to take a breather and calm down.

I exploited the opportunity to check on the council’s works along the canal, as I’m sure anyone would.

It’s fair to say that the temperature at Chateau Morgan has been unusually high for the last six months or so. We’ve been in dispute with the Local Authority regarding provision for Will after he left school at 19 last summer, and a consequence of our refusal to accept the (in our view, hopelessly inadequate) provision on offer was that he and we have spent a lot of time at home, and Will has been as bored and frustrated with that arrangement as you can imagine. It took me a while to work out why Will said “bad people” to me whenever he saw an Oxford City Council logo, but it was how he’d interpreted his mum’s explanation to him of who we were having an argument with, and why he couldn’t go where he wanted.

Now, though, thanks to an excellent solicitor, we have secured the outcome we wanted for Will, a placement at a residential college where the emphasis will initially be on his skills of communication and independence, thereafter on his capacity for work. Our ambition, needless to say, is to ensure that he is as capable of independent living as his abilities allow, above all saving him from a life of inactivity and boredom. We’re strong believers in the therapeutic power of work, and I don’t know many special-needs parents who aren’t. You can find me getting very irate on this issue here, if you’ve nothing better to do. My interlocutor only meant well, to be clear, but at the time I couldn’t see it through the red mist.

Two weeks ago we were heading for a tribunal with no guarantee of success. Suddenly the Local Authority had accepted our case and Will’s place at the college was activated. Tomorrow he’s leaving home for the first extended period in twenty years. Thinking back to Christmas morning and that problem with waiting, I’ll leave you to imagine how much sleep we’ve got in the last few days, but the good news there is that Will loves the place and can’t wait to go.

This is a fantastic outcome, the very best we could hope for. I am so grateful, notwithstanding our little tussle with the authorities, that our society makes such provision for its most vulnerable members. But I can’t claim to be entirely relaxed about the next few months back here at home. Raising Will has shaped our lives for two decades, the essential feature of our married life, the environment within which his younger brother has grown up. I was saying to someone the other night that I didn’t recognise the person I was before Will was born, and I doubted anyone else could. Tomorrow the focus of our family life will no longer be there. It’s natural to feel some anxiety how easily we’ll settle into “normality”.

There’s a tag of Horace I’ve repeated to myself countless times as a parent. It’s from his ode on the Golden Mean, moderation in all things (2.10), and a level-headed perception of fortune and misfortune is key to Horace’s life advice: sperat infestis, metuit secundis/ alteram sortem bene praeparatum/ pectus. The Latin is beautifully succinct, but in my clumsy English and twice as many words: “The well-conditioned heart in hostile circumstances hopes for, and in favourable conditions fears, a change in fortune”. Our circumstances have turned extremely favourable almost overnight, and I can’t help but feel wary.

This is my 100th blog on this site, I’m alarmed to report, so it feels like a good moment for something different, especially as it coincides with a major life event for all the members of the Morgan family, and one (just one) of the reasons for blogging over the last six years has been to maintain equanimity in sometimes trying circumstances. Dubious theories about Latin poetry will be back soon, no doubt, but right now the dog needs walking.



Backward glances


I’m just emerging from what were possibly the busiest few months of my life, and I’ve a powerful impulse to stare blankly out of a window for an extended period of time. But there’s stuff to be done, and at the top of the list a final version of A Very Short Introduction to Ovid which needs to get to OUP by the end of January. Right at the bottom is writing a blog, probably, but I’m judging it’ll get the writing juices flowing again.

So here’s something on Ovid that’s going into the book, but which I owe to a couple of former students, one of whom was getting married and the other finding material for a poet who was writing a poem for the wedding. The poem, by Ben Bransfield, is a glosa, a Spanish form which is an extended gloss (glosa) on four lines of pre-existing poetry. The four lines are quoted at the head of the poem, and each line in turn is quoted at the end of four ten-line stanzas.

The lines that Ben chose to gloss (the happy couple are keen and intrepid walkers) were these from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (1.493-6):

et modo praecedas facito, modo terga sequaris,
     et modo festines, et modo lentus eas:
nec tibi de mediis aliquot transire columnas
     sit pudor, aut lateri continuasse latus;

And now walk ahead, now fall behind,
now hurry, and now go slowly.
Nor be shy to slip past some of the columns
between you, or to walk side by side.

The first book of the Art of Love teaches its male readers how to find a lover and win her favour (Book 2 explains how to retain her affections, and Book 3 offers comparable advice, or at least claims it does, to women). Here the guidance is to engineer an apparently innocent encounter with the woman one is courting as she strolls in a colonnade, and it relates to the very earliest stages of a relationship.

Ovid returns to this scene in the Metamorphoses, and what he does with it is very clever, very beautiful and very Ovidian, or so it seems to me. We’re in Book 11, at the end of an account of the singer Orpheus which began at the start of Book 10 with the death of his wife Eurydice at their wedding, bitten by a snake. Famously, Orpheus travelled down to the shades in search of her, and played his lyre and sang so beautifully that Persephone and Hades, queen and king of the underworld, restored Eurydice to him, on condition that he walked ahead of her up to the world of the living and never looked back. Of course, Orpheus cannot resist a backward glance at his beloved wife, and she slips away again, down to the land of the dead.

For the remainder of Book 10 we stay with Orpheus, listening to the songs he sings seated mournfully on a hill in Thrace, the familiar stories of Pygmalion and Adonis among them, and it’s not until the following book that we finally take leave of him. Early in Book 11 Orpheus meets his death, ripped to pieces by envious Thracian bacchanals. His head and lyre are carried off by the river Hebrus, still singing mournfully, but his shade is consigned to the underworld (Met. 11.61-66):

umbra subit terras, et quae loca uiderat ante
cuncta recognoscit quaerensque per arua piorum
inuenit Eurydicen cupidisque amplectitur ulnis;
hic modo coniunctis spatiantur passibus ambo,
nunc praecedentem sequitur, nunc praeuius anteit
Eurydicenque suam iam tuto respicit Orpheus.

His shade goes under the earth, and all the places he had seen before
he recognises, and seeking through the meadows of the pious
he finds Eurydice and embraces her with his passionate arms.
Here now the two of them stroll together with steps synchronised,
now he follows her as she walks ahead, now goes ahead in front of her,
and now Orpheus gazes back in safety at his beloved Eurydice.

It’s a very lovely moment. Reunited as shades, Orpheus doesn’t need to worry this time where he’s walking relative to Eurydice or whether he can look at her. It’s witty on Ovid’s part, and there’s human warmth as well. But the scene also recalls that moment in the Ars Amatoria, and the allusion carries at least two characteristically Ovidian implications. One is that Orpheus and Eurydice are back, now that they are united in death, to how they were even before their ill-fated marriage day. They’re lovers at the very beginning of their relationship.

Another implication gives us Ovid at his most self-aware. The Metamorphoses is a poem that delights in disorientating its readers, leaving us scratching our heads where exactly we are in a plot that’s supposed to be moving inexorably from the beginning of time to the present day, and converging on the city of Rome as it does so. At the beginning of Book 11, by means of this reminiscence of the Ars Amatoria, we’re being taken back to a stage in Orpheus and Eurydice’s relationship which predates all Orpheus’ grief and suffering, and that means all the action of Book 10. In fact here at the start of Book 11, with the suggestion that Orpheus and Eurydice are young sweethearts all over again, it’s as if the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses hasn’t happened at all.

Witness to a stoning

Lupus is the Latin for “wolf”, but the man named Lupus is an excellent example of a scapegoat.

Still reading? C. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus, plain Lupus for short, was the unfortunate target of the most celebrated poem written by C. Lucilius, the pioneer of Rome’s greatest gift to the literary world, verse satire. Lucilius’ first satire described how the gods gathered to debate the deplorable state of Rome and pondered an appropriate punishment for the city. Their decision was to take revenge on a representative figure, and Lupus, a former consul and censor who between holding those offices had been convicted of extortion, fitted the bill.

Lupus was a perfect embodiment of Rome’s wider corruption, according to Lucilius’ account of things, and the satire recounted his alleged depravity in some detail. Lupus had died shortly before Lucilius composed his poem, and Lucilius is able to explain his death as the gods’ ultimate decree, a death sentence for the criminal Lupus. Lucilius’ poem only survives as fragments, but Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, his vicious satire on the dead emperor Claudius which recounts Claudius’ banishment from heaven to the underworld, is modelled on Lucilius’ attack on Lupus and probably gives a good impression of its style and impact.

It was a brutal attack, we can be confident of that. When Horace, Lucilius’ successor in verse satire, recalls the treatment meted out to Lupus, his choice of words is significant: “Lupus overwhelmed by defamatory verses”, in Latin famosisque Lupo cooperto uersibus (Horace, Satires 2.1.68). The verb cooperio is practically the technical term for stoning, vividly transforming Lucilius’ satirical verses into stones cast at the malefactor until he dies. Stoning is classically the act of a collective, the people as a whole taking revenge on a single perceived wrongdoer, and that works well for Lupus, an individual at whom Lucilius encourages Rome to direct its anger in order to save itself.

It’s only a step beyond stoning to see Lupus as a victim of scapegoating. This is the psychosocial process by which a group (generally experiencing a crisis of some kind) identifies an individual or another group as the cause of its own misfortunes, and thus feels justified in exacting revenge on them. It seems that the death of Lupus in Lucilius, with which his satirical attack culminates, satisfied the anger of the gods at Rome, and that his expulsion from the collective was a means to resolve Rome’s crisis. This is a pattern of behaviour familiar enough to the Romans, a people with a strong collective ethos who also suffered plenty of crises. Turnus in Virgil’s Aeneid, the individual whose death will end the conflict between the future components of the Roman people, figuratively ending a civil war, looks a lot like another scapegoat. One difference between Virgil and Lucilius is perhaps that Virgil was more aware of the sacrificial logic of his story.

But scapegoating is also a common feature of our everyday social life. Anyone who has experienced an intensely communal environment — a school is a good example, or an archaeological dig — will recognise the tendency for feelings of dissatisfaction and stress to find a target in an individual who in some way stands out from the group. Many of us will have been that victimised person at some time or another. Many more of us will have done the scapegoating, whether we’re aware of it or not. A vivid memory of my own from school is of being in a group of boys in the playground making merciless fun of another boy. I realised afterwards that I had no idea why I had been doing it (the boy being bullied was my friend, for God’s sake) and it set me thinking hard about what had come over me. I learned something important about my capacities, about the power of the need to belong and what it can encourage you to do, and that is no doubt why I still remember so clearly an event from 35 years ago, and still feel terrible about it.

A long and self-indulgent preamble, but some of you may understand why this of all topics is occupying me at the moment. I witnessed on Twitter a few days ago a textbook case of scapegoating, a marginalised group of people projecting resentment they very justifiably feel onto an individual irrationally identified as powerful and malign. The response to an innocent tweet had all the hallmarks of a scapegoating — the mobbing, the wildly disproportionate outrage, the unconvincing attempts to explain the behaviour in rational terms.

Let me say this again. I recognise scapegoating not because I can see the Romans doing it in their literature. I recognise it because I’ve done it myself. It is, in a terrifying way, the most human thing to do, answering a deep herd-instinct for self-preservation. But it is the very ugliest of things, too, this irrational aggression directed against an innocent.

So, a thought.

If you and a lot of other people are very, very angry with an individual.

If you can’t quite call to mind what exactly it is, the heinous thing that this person did to you.

If what’s bothering you, when you reflect on it, is really something else entirely.

If, as you are pillorying your target, you look around and the people joining in the attack are quite similar to you.

If it’s kind of intoxicating, too, this righteous pursuit of the one we all identify as the malefactor.

There’s a word for it, and you should stop.

Dear Sir Aurel Stein

Mary Amps 1 cropped

Lansdown Park


June 26th 1929

Dear Sir Aurel Stein,

I have just finished “On Alexander’s Track Of The Indus”. It has recalled many pleasant memories of days on the Frontier & many of the people you mention. My husband built the new British Legation in Kabul & was up there for five years.

I enclose a few photographs he took at Bamian. I thought you might care to see them. If you would like copies I will have enlargements properly done for you, there are a few more I will look up, but none giving the faithful detail of Monsieur Hackin’s in the Guimet Musée Paris. He very kindly showed me his collections last year.

I have never been lucky enough to get up to Bamian British ladies were not encouraged to travel in Afghanistan & quite rightly but I regret Bamian & the Moving Sands. I met you at Government House Peshawar just before you left for Swat with the Metcalfes.

We hope to be at the dinner of the Central Asian Society next Wednesday, (my husband gave a lecture a semi-private one to the Cen. As: Soc: last year on his return from Kabul) & we are hoping to have the great pleasure of meeting you there.

May I say with what pleasure I have read your books though my scientific knowledge is lamentably small.

Yours v. truly,

Mary Amps

I am approaching my 100th blog on this site, an alarming thought, but this one takes me back to two of my very first.

Back in 2013 Dilek Taş, a Turkish researcher I was helping, had been investigating the Aurel Stein archival material in the Bodleian Library. There she came across some photos of Bamiyan that had been sent to Stein, and Dilek thoughtfully shared them with me. The late 1920s were an interesting time in Afghanistan, radical reforms by the modernising king Amanullah followed by a rebellion by Habibullah Kalakani–known less respectfully as Bacha-ye Saqao, “Son of a Water-carrier”, and more respectfully as King Habibullah II–and Amanullah’s overthrow. I wrote two blogs about the photos as I learned more about them. You can read here about life in the British Legation in Kabul as a civil war raged around it, and the first humanitarian airlift (and see some film of all that, too); and here about Mary Amps’ successful later career as a breeder of (appropriately) Afghan Hounds.


The Legation party in a 1926 Wolseley tourer, with the larger of the Buddhas of Bamiyan behind them.

Things would’ve been a whole lot easier in 2013, and a bit less fun, if I’d known about the letter I’ve transcribed at the top, sent by Mary Amps in 1929 along with the photographs. I didn’t find it then partly because the Special Collections of the Bodleian were at that time in the process of being rehoused (hence among other things Dilek being allowed to access the original photos, which seems pretty tricky now), but mainly because I’m a Classicist who doesn’t have the faintest clue how archives work.

What does Mary Amps’ letter tell us, though? It confirms that the Ampses, Mary and Major Leon Williamson, left Afghanistan in 1928, thus were not caught up in the airlift. It also squarely contradicts a suspicion I had had that Mary Amps herself was the figure third from the left in this photo:


In actual fact, as Mary explains, she didn’t have any opportunity to travel around Afghanistan while based in Kabul. The male residents of the Legation certainly did: I’ve had the good luck of seeing two albums of photos of Afghanistan taken by the head of the Legation, Sir Francis Humphrys, and now in the possession of his grandson. I know who the central figure is in this image, Sheikh Mahbub Ali Khan, Oriental Secretary at the Legation, and talk about his later life here, but I now have very little idea who else is in the photo aside from the Buddha himself.

Something else the letter confirms, if it needs confirming, is that in the 1920s Bamiyan was the place every foreigner in Afghanistan wanted to visit. Monsieur Hackin, who showed Mary Amps his photographs of Bamiyan in the Musée Guimet in Paris, is Joseph Hackin, later the director of the French archaeological mission in Afghanistan (DAFA), who, with his wife Ria Hackin (French women evidently were allowed to travel), knew Bamiyan well. Here’s one of Hackin’s photos from a later visit, an excellent one: Jean Carl (a friend and colleague of the Hackins) abseiling down the larger Buddha.

Jean Carl on the Buddha

The other site Mary regrets not visiting, “the Moving Sands” or Reg-e Rawan (ریگ روان), wasn’t familiar to me, but it was vividly described, and its celebrity explained, by Alexander Burnes in the 1830s (and by Babur before him), and here is contemporary film of the place. (20.07.2021: Francis Humphrys’ grandson Owen has a clutch of documents indicating that the interest of the British Mission in the Reg-e Rawan was provoked by a private request from Lord Curzon, Foreign Secretary, for more information about it.)

To me personally what the letter revealed was that interests of mine that I had thought were separate were in fact intertwined. The motivation for Mary Amps’ letter to Aurel Stein, and the photos enclosed, turns out to have been Stein’s On Alexander’s Track to the Indus, Stein’s account of his travels in Swat in 1926, the book that took me to Swat last summer. Her letter in fact intersects with the early part of the book, where Stein meets Sir Francis Humphrys in Peshawar before motoring up the “once blood-soaked heights of the Malakand” and into independent Swat with Herbert Metcalfe, Political Officer for the British territories in this section of the Frontier. Well, the Ampses were also at Government House when Stein was staying there. Mary Amps’s letter to Stein is a piece of fan mail, then, but it’s also clear that this cadre of Frontier operatives was small, and its members knew each other pretty well.

I belatedly discovered this letter pursuing a request from a graduate student for the photos Dilek had found (and it was an opportunity to give myself a break from Ovid, it is true), but it’s all jolly serendipitous, because I think Mary Amps’s letter will be where I start my Gandhara Connections lecture in a month’s time.

A photograph I missed in 2013 (from microfilm, hence the poor quality), featuring Mahbub Ali, A. N. Other, and the smaller Buddha.

Pick, pluck or even savour the day

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

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

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

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

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

Joy in numbers

Frewin chronogram

I do like a chronogram, an inscription (preferably Latin, for me) that encodes a date. In fact so big a fan am I that my one regret, should the proposal to remove the memorial to Cecil Rhodes on the High St facade of Oriel College in Oxford be realised, is that it would also obliterate a rather nice chronogram.

This example at Oriel can illustrate the principle of the exercise. The inscription, E LARGA MVNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES, “Out of the bountiful munificence of Cecil Rhodes”, is in perfectly natural Latin, but if one adds up all letters which could also be Roman numerals (highlighted here: E LARGA MVNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES), one gets 50 + 1,000 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 100 + 1 + 100 + 100 + 1 + 50 + 1 + 1 + 500 = 1,911, or 1911, the date when the Rhodes Building, on the facade of which this memorial is set, was completed.

But it’s another, less controversial, Oxford chronogram I’m concerned with today. Frewin Hall is a grand house in the centre of Oxford now incorporated into an annexe of undergraduate accommodation for Brasenose College. From 1887 to 1907 it was rented from Brasenose by Charles Shadwell, close friend of Walter Pater (and his literary executor) and future Provost of Oriel. Over the main entrance to the house is written FREWINI CAROLVS LAETAT SHADWELLIVS AVLAM, with the numerically-meaningful letters, as I hope you can see at the top, highlighted. 5 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 100 + 50 + 5 + 50 + 500 + 5 + 5 + 50 +50 + 1 + 5 + 5 + 50 + 1,000 = 1888.

This strikes me as a particularly sophisticated example of the genre. The reading of an upper-case double-u as two Vs is witty, and the line is both metrical, a dactylic hexameter, and perfectly symmetrical in the disposition of the Latin words.

Which makes odder the things that have been (and are still) said about it.

An Oxford Childhood by Carola Oman describes the very privileged existence of the daughter of a Fellow of All Souls before the First World War. From 1908 the Oman family rented Frewin Hall from C. B. Heberden, the Principal of Brasenose who preferred to live on the main site. (Heberden was a Classicist, and before becoming Principal my predecessor-but-three.) At a remove of nearly seventy years (An Oxford Childhood was published in 1976), Oman slightly misremembers the details as she describes the inscription (p. 106):

There was never any chance of us buying Frewin Hall. It had belonged to Brasenose College since 1580. By New Year 1908 it had stood empty for seven years. Dr Heberdon, who had taken a lease from Dr Shadwell, who had gone off to become Provost of Oriel, had at last decided against retiring there. Shadwell had been an Oxford eccentric. He had rebuilt the west wing and added a sundial with what was called a chronogram to his facade. This read–


People who knew said he had not got it quite right. Instead of saying that Frewin Hall delighted Charles Shadwell, it was saying that he delighted Frewin Hall. There was no doubt he had loved the house, and particularly his spacious lawn. If he detected a weed he would drop a massive bunch of keys as an order that it be instantly removed.

My question is, did Shadwell, as Oman suggests, really get it wrong? It would certainly be odd if such a perfectionist (the keys), who delighted in the eccentric precision required to compose a chronogram, even making perfectly symmetrical hexameters out of them (it’s hard enough in prose, experto credite), admitted an elementary mistake in Latin.

Let’s look at that Latin. What it certainly means is “Charles Shadwell brings joy to the Hall of Frewin”, and this has not seemed an appropriate sentiment to attach to the front door of a beloved house. Here is someone else, claiming a close acquaintance with Shadwell even (and being spectacularly patronised by the author James Hilton FSA), interpreting it in a way that the Latin won’t admit, but seems more natural: “Charles Shadwell rejoices in Frewen’s Hall.” But that would require the deponent laetor with an ablative, not the active laeto governing a direct object that we have.

I am here to rescue Shadwell’s reputation, in respect of his Latin at least. And I think the key to understanding that laetat lies in Shadwell’s activities at Frewin.

The Hall dates back to about 1600, although its main cellar is much older, circa 1100, a remarkable survival of a wealthy Norman house that stood on the site. (There’s a fascinating analysis of the building here.) The name Frewin comes from Richard Frewin, who in the eighteenth century somehow managed to combine being a physician and Camden Professor of Ancient History, and gave the building a whole new wing. But Shadwell made his own significant additions to the building, bringing in the leading architect of nineteenth-century Oxford, Thomas Jackson, to add a full upper storey, in place of an attic, to the west wing above the main entrance. In November 1887 Shadwell informed the Bursar of Brasenose that he had “now settled with Jackson on the plans for the new storey at Frewen Hall” (details from Elizabeth Boardman’s research here.)

Jackson’s work at Frewin presumably kicked in after Christmas, and thus was carried out in 1888, as indeed the Arabic-numeral date under the sundial on the new facade indicates. (The sundial with its initials of Shadwell and his coat-of-arms is evidence also of his singular self-importance…) Our other witness reads the date in the chronogram as marking the year in which Shadwell took up residence at Frewin, but surely it’s rather to this work of renovation that it refers. The natural way to read Frewini Carolus laetat Shadwellius aulam, “Charles Shadwell brings gladness to Frewin Hall”, seems to me a reasonable expression of what architectural renovation achieves, at least given the constraints of the chronogram form. In other words Shadwell is telling us that he is bringing joy to Frewin, not Frewin to him, but what he’s talking about is how he turned the building into a much happier example of domestic architecture. I agree, as it happens, but you can decide for yourselves if he (and Jackson) succeeded, from images before the intervention (the main entrance is to the left),

and after:

Frewin after

The more attentive among you, incidentally, will have noted that the college containing the chronogram of Caecilius Rhodes and the college of which Shadwell became Provost are one and the same: Oriel. Shadwell was Provost of Oriel from 1905 to 1914, and we can safely assume he was responsible also for E LARGA MUNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES, and I would hazard for many other of these monumental brainteasers there may be scattered around Oxford.

Ll. (aged 51)

Some more images:

Frewin Hall 1859 Illustrated London News

Frewin Hall pre-renovation, from the Illustrated London News (1859)

Frewin Jackson Plans P.7

A drawing by Thomas Jackson of his proposed alterations


Unconscionable misinformation on the wall of the present-day Frewin Hall


Carola Oman and her dog Patch in front of Shadwell’s chronogram



This is probably just silly. If so, all I can say is that it’s the last desperate days of summer term, I’ve just shared my pitiful lack of acting ability with a bunch of colleagues and students, and my grip on reality is tenuous.

What I’m thinking about a lot at the moment is Hercules and his role as a culture hero, one aspect of which is the way that his name was commonly associated with landmarks. Mountains, islands, geological peculiarities, roads and hot springs all might have Herculean stories attached to them, often to the effect that he had brought them into being by means of his superhuman strength.

The mythical travels of Hercules, in the course of which he overcame various monstrous antagonists and left these marks in the ancient landscape, extended from Spain to the Black Sea, from Pakistan to Morocco. In North Africa the opponent he most often faced in folklore was Antaeus, a gigantic (see below) son of Earth who challenged all comers to wrestle him and drew constant strength from contact with his mother; Hercules defeated him by lifting him up off the ground.

I’m in the very early stages of researching Hercules and Antaeus, with the aid especially of Irad Malkin’s Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean (CUP, 1994), but the thought behind this blog (certainly daft, as I’ve indicated) occurred to me while preparing a poem of Propertius, 3.22, for teaching. In this poem Propertius encourages Tullus to return to his native country, hymning the praises of Italy even as compared with the manifold wonders of the wider world. In the latter category he mentions some remarkable locations in southern Spain and North Africa (3.22.7-10):

tu licet aspicias caelum omne Atlanta gerentem,
sectaque Persea Phorcidos ora manu,
Geryonis stabula et luctantum in pulvere signa
Herculis Antaeique, Hesperidumque choros…

Though you might look upon Atlas who bears the whole sky,
or Medusa’s head severed by Perseus’ hand,
Geryon’s stables, and the marks in the dust of wrestling
Hercules and Antaeus, and the dancing places of the Hesperides…

…there’s no place like home.

All these locations look to me like landmarks that Propertius considers identifiable. Travellers could visit, I interpret this as saying, not just the Atlas Mountains, but also places identified by tradition as Medusa’s head (maybe somewhere in the Gorgades Islands), the dancing circles of the Hesperides, goddesses of evening, the stalls where Geryon kept his cattle (before Hercules killed this monster too and made off with them)–and “the marks in the dust of Hercules and Antaeus as they wrestled”. In the case of Antaeus, the location of his bout with Hercules, as Malkin explains, shifts westward with Greek colonization, Hercules’ victory functioning as a template for Greek settlement in strange places, and continuing to do so as Greeks colonized more and more of the coast. No doubt the other places mentioned were equally mobile over time, even if Propertius seems to be thinking of precise locations in his day.

The travels and conquests of Hercules around the Mediterranean are typically understood by the Greeks and Romans as exploits imposing civilization on the wild or barbarian, and Diodorus Siculus (4.17.4-5) interprets the struggle with Antaeus in exactly these terms:

Setting sail, then, from Crete, Heracles put in to Libya, and first he challenged to a fight Antaeus, renowned for his physical strength and skill in wrestling, who put to death all strangers that he had defeated in wrestling; and Heracles grappled with him and killed him. Following this he conquered Libya, which was full of wild animals, and much of the desert (πολλὰ τῶν κατὰ τὴν ἔρημον χώραν), and tamed them (ἐξημέρωσεν), so that they were filled with farmland and all such other plantations as produce fruit, much of the land being vine-growing, and much olive-bearing. In general Libya, before that time uninhabitable because of the number of wild beasts throughout the land, he tamed and made second to no other country in its prosperity. Likewise by killing criminals and overbearing rulers he made the cities prosperous.

Libya, for Diodorus, is essentially North Africa west of the Nile valley. Hercules tames the land, renders it civilized, making it amenable to human habitation and sustenance. The dominant image of wildness is a prevalence of wild animals, but there is also a suggestion of land that is entirely deserted–something like our sense of desert–that Hercules restores to humanity and agriculture. The most pressing ecological issue in ancient as in modern North Africa was the desert to the south of the inhabitable coastal strip. I think we can understand what Diodorus had in mind when he describes a land that is fertile but needing protection from, so to speak, desertification: Hercules took the desert and made it bloom.

So what were Propertius’ “marks of Hercules and Antaeus in the dust as they wrestled”? Most likely some specific location pointed out to well-heeled Greco-Roman visitors, and Ross McPherson points out below that Pliny the Elder (5.1.3) records about Lixos in Mauretania (modern Larache in Morocco) that there, according to fable, were located regia Antaei certamenque cum Hercule et Hesperidum horti, “the palace of Antaeus, the contest with Hercules, and the Gardens of the Hesperides”, the latter on an island surrounded by an inlet from the sea (the serpentine character of the inlet explaining the serpent that guarded the Apples of the Hesperides). Pliny also records a tradition (5.5.31) that placed the Garden of the Hesperides at Berenice (Benghazi in Libya, formerly Euhesperides), which illustrates Malkin’s point that the scenes of Hercules’ exploits shifted as the Greeks travelled: Pliny writes grumpily about the “wandering tales of Greece”, and the conflict with Antaeus was progressively sited (Malkin p. 181) near Cyrene in eastern Libya, at Barca a little further west, Benghazi, and Tingis (Tangiers), where Sertorius dug up his supposed bones (Plutatch, Sert. 9.3-4, with Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters (2000), 121-6), as well as Larache (where the historian Gabinius, cited at Strabo 17.3.8, placed Antaeus’ sixty-cubit-long bones, possibly a mammoth but maybe a prehistoric whale…). But a location either at Tangier or Larache would suit Propertius’ purposes pretty well, in the far far West of the Known World.

All of which makes the theory I came up with even less compelling, but I’m committed now, so here goes: ancient wrestlers might fight on sand: the Latin word “(h)arena” means “sand”, “a sandy desert” and “an arena”, and the word for the surface on which Greek wrestlers fought might interchangeably be ἡ κόνις, “dust” (cf. Propertius’ puluis) or ἡ ψάμμος, “sand”, while Herodotus uses ἡ ψάμμος to denote the desert of Libya, 3.25, 4.173.* I found myself wondering, and I’ve explained the time of the academic year and my fragile psychological state, whether the marks in the dust left by the epic struggle of the giant wrestler Antaeus and the godlike hero Hercules, a location an intrepid ancient traveller might look upon, at least, were actually the dunes of the Sahara Desert.


Desert scene in modern Libya, from Wikipedia

* R. Katzoff, “Where did the Greeks of the Roman Period Practice Wrestling?”, AJA 90 (1986), 437-40.

Ibant obscuri

A fond memory of tutoring, back when Chris Tudor, a.k.a. Massolit, was still an undergraduate, so one or two years ago. We were discussing a passage from Aeneid VI, the terrifying initial entry into the Underworld by Aeneas and the Sibyl of Cumae (6.268-81; David West’s translation, lightly versified):

ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram,
perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna:
quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna
est iter in silvis, ubi caelum condidit umbra
Iuppiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem.
vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus Orci
Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae;
pallentes habitant Morbi tristisque Senectus,
et Metus et malesuada Fames ac turpis Egestas,
terribiles visu formae, Letumque Labosque.
tum consanguineus Leti Sopor, et mala mentis
Gaudia, mortiferumque adverso in limine Bellum,
ferreique Eumenidum thalami et Discordia demens
vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruentis.

They walked in the darkness of that lonely night with shadows all about them,
through the empty halls of Dis and his desolate kingdom,
as men walk in a wood by the sinister light of a fitful moon
when Jupiter has buried the sky in shade
and black night has robbed all things of their colour.
Before the entrance hall of Orcus, in the very throat of hell,
Grief and Revenge have made their beds
and Old Age lives there in despair, with white-faced Diseases
and Fear and Hunger, corrupter of men, and squalid Poverty,
things dreadful to look upon, and Death and Drudgery besides.
Then there are Sleep, Death’s sister, perverted
Pleasures, murderous War astride the threshold,
the iron chambers of the Furies and raving Discord
with blood-soaked ribbons binding her viperous hair.

Here you can listen to Matthew Hargreaves reading this passage in the original Latin.

Chris, characteristically forthright even in his youth, offered a searching critique of Virgil’s simile at 270-2. It wasn’t much of a simile, he remarked, if it explicated a walk in darkness by analogy with a walk in darkness. A very good point. Similes are by definition comparisons of different things. A simile is in some respect like the thing it illustrates, of course, the clue’s in the name, but must also, for it to be something different from a literal comparison and do some metaphorical work, be essentially different, too. In “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, it is obviously essential to the impact of the figure of speech both that Wordsworth is not literally a cloud and also that he has in certain (unanticipated) respects behaved like one.

In Virgil’s example, by contrast, the simile seems to be all similarity and no difference, not so much “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as “I wandered lonely as someone wandering lonely.”

My answer to Chris back when–and some might consider this a desperate defence of Virgil–was that maybe this striking lack of figurative colour was actually the point. One of Virgil’s achievements in this book of the Aeneid is to conjure up for the Underworld the eerie character of a place both animate and dead, a space full of shades of former humans who can interact with Aeneas, but whose existence is nevertheless of a fundamentally lesser kind. Aeneas, a live human moving through the Underworld, stands out from its inhabitants by possessing physical characteristics of the living such as weight (as when Charon’s ferryboat, designed for insubstantial shades, ships water when he steps into it, 412-14), colour and even a voice (489-3, Aeneas’ vivid encounter with his insubstantial former enemies at Troy, including the gorgeous image of Aeneas’ fulgentiaque arma per umbras, “weaponry blazing through/amid the shadows”). The difference between the dead and the living for Virgil is light, definition and colour.

The passage we’re looking at here offers the first glimpse of this gloomy, achromatic world. But Virgil calculates, I think, that introducing metaphor to this scene, in other words a simile doing the work a simile should do, will contradict the picture he’s painting of a place lacking something essential to the world of the living; or to put that positively, seeking to convey the dreariness of the Underworld, he lets that lifelessness penetrate deep into his poetry. Virgil introduces a simile, a figure of literary embellishment (metaphor is readily described in ancient literary criticism as a matter of brightening a piece of writing, bringing light to it, e.g. Quintilian 12.10.36), but a simile that itself loses its life and colour as the poem accompanies Aeneas on his journey down to Hell.

I don’t think Chris bought that all those years ago, and there’s no reason why anyone else should.

I gave you Matthew Hargreaves’ beautiful reading of these crepuscular verses earlier. He’ll be reading them again, alongside many more, equally lovely, at King’s College, London on March 28, alongside Dame Emma Kirkby, Lizzie Donnelly, George Sharpley, and the author—and tickets are available here.

Hercules Inc.; or, Ovid and the bovids

Montreal Moving Companies
A few weeks ago my colleague Ed Bispham, after a visit to the archaeological museum at Chieti, alerted me to a piece of Ovidiana that was entirely new to me. It was a column excavated from the site of a sanctuary of Hercules Curinus on the slopes of Monte Morrone in Abruzzo, Italy, and among other graffiti scribbled on it were twelve hexameter lines of Latin poetry, with Ovid’s name NASONIS written in another hand above them.


The lines are very hard to read, and what can be read doesn’t correspond to any surviving works of Ovid, so it’s assumed that they are being attributed to him rather than actually by him. Here is what is legible, anyhow, from M. Buonocore, L’Abruzzo e il Molise in età romana (L’Aquila, 2002), p. 178:


What keeps it all quite intriguing, though, is where we are. Monte Morrone is just a few miles from Ovid’s hometown of Sulmo (modern Sulmona). The site of the sanctuary, largely covered by a landslip in antiquity, was in fact popularly regarded in the Middle Ages as Ovid’s villa, and the excavations that uncovered this column (and other items such as this very pretty statue of Hercules, also in the museum at Chieti) were commenced there in 1957, the 2,000th anniversary of Ovid’s birth. So it’s perfectly understandable that people have wanted to make something of the graffiti, even if it’s just, in its way, a modern version of the medieval impulse to believe that Ovid lived here.

A striking fact, though, is that Ovid, who has a lot to say about Hercules and a lot to say about his birthplace at Sulmo among the Paeligni, never makes any reference to Hercules Curinus, the most important religious foundation in the district.

What’s a blog for, though, if not to flog a dead horse? I’m going to suggest that we can still find the Hercules worshipped at Monte Morrone in Ovid’s work. This will involve a rapid survey of the Hercules cult in central Italy, and then some close reading of a moment in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The most important role that Hercules seems to have fulfilled in central Italy, surprising as it may seem, was as patron of pastoral activity and commerce more generally, in particular the herding of cattle between highlands and lowlands, and the trade in the critical commodity of salt which seems to have shadowed the movement of cattle. The sanctuary at Monte Morrone stood adjacent to the calles or drove roads along which these cattle were herded, and the networks were extensive: it’s no coincidence that the great sanctuary of Hercules in Rome, the Ara Maxima, stood in the “Cattle Market”, the Forum Boarium, nor that elsewhere in the Forum Boarium there was a place called the Salinae or Salt-pans: the Forum Boarium marked the termination of the Via Salaria, the “Salt Road” by which (Pliny the Elder informs us, 31.89) salt from the mouth of the Tiber was transported into the interior. At Alba Fucens, a Roman colony lying between Rome and Sulmo, there stood a major shrine of Hercules Salarius, Hercules in his aspect as patron of the salt trade. From it comes a somewhat larger statue of the god.

Hercules’ patronage of this traffic could even turn him, a mediator through trade between the diverse peoples of Italy, into a god of Italy itself. In the Aeneid Virgil draws out the myth of Hercules’ tenth labour that underlies this connection with cattle, his killing of Geryon in Spain and herding of the monstrous herdsman’s cattle all around the north-Mediterranean littoral to Greece. In Aeneid 8, a book (in a poem) deeply concerned with Italy’s unity and divisions, Hercules, in reference to his violent suppression of the malefactor Cacus, who had attempted to steal Geryon’s cattle, is given a very suggestive epithet, the communis deus, “the god who is god for all” (8.275), a force for Italian unity. Aeneas will also unify this geographical space, but do it, as paradoxically as Hercules, by fighting a most divisive war within Italy.

As anticipated, a whistlestop tour of Herculean Italy there, but Filippo Coarelli can sum up the relevant bit: “in the great markets [Hercules] is always present as guarantor and intermediary. The cult of Hercules is thus closely connected with mercantile activity, especially in the Sabellic zone (i.e. central to southern Italy), where the divinity fulfilled the function of protector of herds and shepherds” (F. Coarelli and A. La Regina, Abruzzo-Molise. Guide archeologiche Laterza 9 (Bari and Rome, 1984), 87).

How can we drag this back to Ovid, though?

Well, Book 9 of the Metamorphoses (my favourite, as it happens) has a lot to say about Hercules, with Ovid having his characteristic fun at the expense of the greatest hero of them all. A key episode is the attempt by the centaur Nessus to carry off Hercules’ wife Deianira, under the pretext of carrying her safely across the river Euenus. Hercules shoots Nessus dead, but as he dies Nessus persuades Deianira that his cloak, soaked with his blood, will restore Hercules’ love to her should his affections ever wander. In fact, when Hercules does bring another woman home to Trachis, and Deianira sends to him “the shirt of Nessus” to win him back, Nessus’ blood (contaminated, as the centaur well knew, by the poisonous blood of the hydra with which Hercules’ arrows were tipped) causes Hercules a prolonged and agonizing death.

What interests me, though, is Hercules’ angry speech to Nessus (and Ovid’s account of its motivation) as the centaur attempts to make off with Deianira (9.118-28):

iamque tenens ripam, missos cum tolleret arcus,
coniugis agnouit uocem Nessoque paranti
fallere depositum ‘quo te fiducia‘ clamat
‘uana pedum, uiolente, rapit? tibi, Nesse biformis,
dicimus. exaudi, nec res intercipe nostras.
si te nulla mei reuerentia mouit, at orbes
concubitus uetitos poterant inhibere paterni.
haud tamen effugies, quamuis ope fidis equina;
uulnere, non pedibus te consequar.’ ultima dicta
re probat, et missa fugientia terga sagitta
traicit. exstabat ferrum de pectore aduncum.

And now he had reached the bank, and was picking up the bow he had thrown over,
when he heard his wife’s voice, and shouted at Nessus, who was preparing
to fail to honour the deposit: ‘Where is the empty security of your
feet carrying you, impetuous man? It is to you, two-formed Nessus,
that I speak. Listen to me, and do not steal my property.
If no respect moves you, the wheel
to which your father [Ixion] is attached might dissuade you from this forbidden union.
But you will not escape, however much you trust in your horsy advantage:
With a wound, not my feet, I will pursue you.’ Those last words
he makes good with action, and firing an arrow at Nessus’ fleeing back
he pierced it. The barbed tip jutted out of his chest.

Hercules is a character in an epic poem, and speaks like one. He’s a character in an epic poem, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that doesn’t take itself at all seriously, mind you, so he’s rather too blustering as he shouts at Nessus, tipping over into parody. But it seems to me that Ovid is using other ways of puncturing the pomposity of this epic hero, and it takes us back to the quite mundane associations we’ve considered that Hercules at Monte Morrone carried, especially in the eyes of a Roman elite that looked down on trade. What I mean is that Hercules’ and Ovid’s language here, particularly the phrases I’ve underlined (and struggled to translate satisfactorily), are strikingly commercial in character, nec res intercipe nostras especially (I wouldn’t go to the cross for any of the others, but cumulatively they amount to something, I think): Hercules describes his wife as if she is a commodity, and Nessus as some kind of commercial rival trying to defraud him, their relationship a commercial deal that has gone sour. If so, it’s classic Metamorphoses: the most heroic of heroes transformed into a businessman with his eye on the bottom line.

The business-savvy god was a familiar notion in this part of Italy, as much to a reader in Rome as anyone who had visited the Hercules Curinus, which any native of Sulmo surely had. So maybe we can see a faint connection between the shrine at Monte Morrone and Sulmo’s most celebrated son, after all.


Ovid in Sulmona, from,_Sulmona.jpg

If this has sparked any interest in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, you can find out more about that poem and Ovid in general in my Ovid: A Very Short Introduction, available here, here, and many other places.

Other reading:

F. van Wonterghem, “Le culte d’Hercule chez les Paeligni. Documents anciens et
nouveaux”, L’antiquité classique 42 (1973), 36-48;
M. Torelli, “Gli aromi e il sale. Afrodite ed Eracle nell’emporia arcaica dell’ Italia”, in A. Mastrocinque (ed.), Ercole in Occidente. Atti del Colloquio Internazionale, Trento, 7 Marzo 1990 (Trento, 1993), 91-117;
Ll. Morgan, “A Yoke Connecting Baskets: Odes 3.14, Hercules, and Italian Unity”, CQ 55 (2005), 190-203;
T. D. Stek, Cult Places and Cultural Change in Republican Italy (Amsterdam, 2009).