Version 2

Some flamens, photo by Sophie Hay

A curse is a spooky enough topic for Christmas, I reckon. But this blog about curses (exsecrationes in Latin) is really for me to get some thoughts straight in my head. I am still investigating a Roman priest known as the flamen dialis, a priest of Jupiter (as I touched on here, a strange figure who could be considered a kind of animate statue of the god), and one thing I want to understand better is how this priesthood was regarded during Augustus’ reign. (All ultimately with a view to deciding on a possible role for it in Virgil’s Aeneid, but that’s another matter.)

The most important thing to appreciate about this priesthood and Augustan Rome is that for the first half of Augustus’ reign there was actually no flamen dialis in post. This office, a crucial intermediary between Rome and its most powerful patron, the chief god Jupiter, had remained unoccupied since the death by his own hand of the flamen L. Cornelius Merula in 87BC. My assumption is that the absence of the flamen dialis from Rome was a cause of significant anxiety: the Romans were deeply superstitious people, setting great store by the pax deorum, the harmonious relations between them and their gods which could only be maintained by meticulous observation of their religious obligations.

If maintaining this special relationship with the divine realm was a priority, it was because the favour shown their city by the gods was for Romans the best explanation of their rapid rise to power in Italy and the wider Mediterranean. Equally, however, when their fortunes turned sour, and Rome shifted from seemingly unlimited expansion to a traumatic century of internal conflict (only finally brought to an end by Augustus), the Romans could only conclude that they had somehow offended the gods, and this was their punishment. A key element of Augustus’ project to restore Rome after this crisis was mending this all-important relationship, renovating temples, restoring neglected religious practices, in general returning Rome to what he could claim to be the lifestyle that drew the gods’ approval in the first place.

In the event, a new flamen dialis, Ser. Cornelius Lentulus Maluginensis, was at length appointed in (probably) 11BC, shortly after Augustus had finally secured the role of pontifex maximus for himself. The pontifex maximus or chief priest was responsible for selecting the flamen dialis (though he was also subordinate to the flamen in status, interestingly enough), but Augustus had had to wait to assume the role of pontifex until the death of the previous incumbent, the humiliated and sidelined former triumvir M. Aemilius Lepidus. A natural reading of this sequence of events would be that one of Augustus’ very first acts on becoming pontifex maximus in 12BC was to fill the yawning gap in Rome’s religious fabric, the office of flamen dialis. But there is some debate about the date of Maluginensis’ appointment, and the order of events is not so certain.

My hunch, as I’ve suggested, is that Rome could not bear the absence of such an essential religious figure with equanimity; and that when Augustus did select a new priest of Jupiter, a lifetime after the last flamen dialis had died, it would have been a very impressive gesture, a powerful contribution to the climate that Augustus sought, a perception that Rome, after all the trauma of the Civil Wars, was back on its feet; a profound crisis on the divine plane had been resolved.

Merula, the last flamen dialis, had been a particularly prominent victim of those wars, and that’s really all I need to have to argue for the research I’m doing. But an article by Bernadette Liou-Gille (“César, ‘Flamen Dialis destinatus’,” Revue des études anciennes 101 [1999], 433-459, to which I was alerted by Professor Roberta Stewart) opened up a new and weirder dimension to this story.

Liou-Gille is interested in the circumstances and immediate aftermath of Merula’s death in 87BC. The context is the furious rivalry for control of Rome between L. Cornelius Sulla and L. Cornelius Cinna, the latter supported by the great general C. Marius. In simple terms, Cinna, who was consul, had been driven out of Rome, and Merula, the flamen dialis, had been appointed consul in his place (Professor Stewart suggested to me, because no one would dare to harm a hair on the head of the priest of Jupiter). When Cinna and Marius proceeded to recapture the city, Merula resigned the consulship, and then, faced with efforts by Cinna to bring him to trial (Appian, BC 1.74), took his own life.

The most detailed account of his death is by Velleius (2.22.2):

Merula autem, qui se sub aduentum Cinnae consulatu abdicauerat, incisis uenis superfusoque altaribus sanguine, quos saepe pro salute rei publicae flamen dialis precatus erat deos, eos in exsecrationem Cinnae partiumque eius tum precatus optime de re publica meritum spiritum reddidit.

Meanwhile Merula, who had resigned his consulship in anticipation of the arrival of Cinna, slit his veins and drenched the altars with his blood, praying to the gods, to whom he had often as flamen dialis prayed for the wellbeing of Rome, to curse Cinna and his party. In this way he yielded up the life that had served Rome so well.

After that (and this is the main focus of Liou-Gille’s article) a teenage Julius Caesar (who was close to Cinna, married to his daughter, and a nephew of Cinna’s ally Marius) was designated flamen dialis in Merula’s place, but never actually assumed the priesthood, no doubt mainly because both Cinna and Marius were dead within a short time, and when Sulla recaptured Rome at the end of 82BC he promptly rescinded all the measures they had taken.

Liou-Gille takes Velleius’ account of Merula’s death literally, not as a historian’s rhetorical flourish: as Merula died, he drew down a curse upon his enemies, offering his own life to the gods in return for divine punishment of “Cinna and his party”. The way Velleius puts it suggests a polar reversal of the flamen‘s power, from promoting the good fortune of the Roman res publica to becoming an agent of vengeance. The effort to make Caesar flamen dialis in Merula’s place, Liou-Gille argues, was actually an attempt to neutralize the malign influence of this exsecratio, to mend relations with the hostile gods by making a close confederate of Cinna the priest who devoted himself to serving Jupiter.

I think what I like most about Liou-Gille’s reading of these events is her assumption that Romans, including the notoriously cerebral Julius Caesar, were motivated by superstition, by a genuine terror of the gods. It’s easy to misjudge the Romans, by some of the things put on paper by Cicero or Ovid, as rational types whose religion was lightly worn. But in fact it was their scepticism that was only skin-deep.

Caesar never did become flamen dialis, and perhaps Sulla had particular reason to block his appointment: Sulla was undoubtedly a superstitious man, and he had no interest in diverting the wrath of the gods away from his enemies. But my particular interest, as I say, is how all this might have looked from the standpoint of Augustus’ principate, sixty or seventy years after Merula’s death. In other words, what are the implications of a hiatus in the office of the priest of Jupiter that lasted for a human lifetime, and might entail a curse still unpropitiated twenty years into the Pax Augusta? Certainly the lack of a flamen dialis cannot have increased Romans’ sense of security. But if we do suspect that Merula’s curse still exerted an influence, at whom would that divine wrath at “Cinna and his party” be directed in the Augustan age? The least we can say is that, if Julius Caesar had felt himself a target, it was in important respects Caesar’s legacy that was embodied by Augustus. Augustan Rome not only lacked that hotline to its greatest benefactor, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, then; it could also not be confident that Merula’s ancient curse was not still targeted at them.

Well, I’m very sure that Augustus’ appointment of a flamen dialis in 11BC was more than just a piece of political theatre. In the absence of a flamen dialis for over half a century (and what a dreadful half-century it had been), Rome had lacked a fundamental means of maintaining relations with the gods, the bedrock of its success as a nation. Until that rupture was healed, Rome’s recovery under Augustus’ direction could never be complete.

As for the rest of it, I can’t be so sure, but it would seem to me very true to the Roman mindset if something altogether more primitive was in play, the raw dread provoked by a ghastly death and priestly imprecation generations before, a suspicion that the gods’ wrath at their appalling crimes, the bloodletting of the Civil Wars encapsulated by the death of Merula, persisted, unappeased. For as long as the role of Jupiter’s “animate statue” remained unoccupied, Rome was still cursed.

Merry Christmas!


Version 2Photo courtesy of Sophie Hay

This bears the same relation to a blog as a grunt to coherent speech, but at this stage of term it’s all I’m capable of. Michaelmas term, as I may have mentioned before, is brutal, but this year two things have both increased my workload and kept me the right side of sanity: a weekly graduate seminar on Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto 4, the very last poems composed by Rome’s second-greatest and most influential poet, and a paper I gave a week ago on Aeneas and Roman priesthoods. At some point in mid-term two moments coalesced in my head, the first an image from my research on Roman priests, and the second a passage that particularly struck me from Ex Ponto 4.9. If they are actually related in any way, and not just randomly associated in my depleted cerebellum, the common factor is something like personal space. But the issue is also perhaps what Romans loved about their city, and what they also hated.

The city of Rome was loud, smelly and crowded: Horace talks of the beatae/ fumum et opes strepitumque Romae, “the smoke and riches and hubbub of prosperous Rome” (Odes 3.29.11-12). One’s capacity to enjoy a comfortable existence within it essentially depended on your wealth and class. The satirist Juvenal gives a splendidly exaggerated account of what it was like for the little guy (3.243-8):

                                       nobis properantibus obstat

unda prior, magno populus premit agmine lumbos

qui sequitur; ferit hic cubito, ferit assere duro

alter, at hic tignum capiti incutit, ille metretam.

pinguia crura luto, planta mox undique magna

calcor, et in digito clavus mihi militis haeret.

“As I hurry along, the wave ahead impedes me/ and the people that follow me in a massed rank crush my kidneys./ One smacks me with his elbow, another with a hard pole./ This guy bashes my head with a beam, that guy with a wine cask./ My legs are caked with mud, and now I’m trampled by huge feet on every side,/ and a soldier’s hobnail boot in planted on my toe.”

The rich man, according to Juvenal, avoids all this hassle by riding in a litter the size of a ship, and reads or writes or even sleeps as he’s effortlessly conveyed over the crowd.

Another way of keeping your distance from other people was the commoetaculum, a handy piece of equipment I’d never heard of until a couple of weeks ago. You can see a commoetaculum, a kind of wand, in the hand of the figure in the middle of the image at the top: the man holding it is a flamen, a variety of Roman priest, and may be the most important flamen, the flamen Dialis who was the priest of the chief god Jupiter.

All the flamens, but particularly the flamen Dialis, were obliged to live a life that segregated them from the rest of humanity. Their lives were dedicated to the gods they served, to the extent that they came to be regarded as offerings to the god or as their embodiments on earth, “a sacred and animate statue” of their deity, as Plutarch memorably puts it (QR 111). Other taboos laid on the priests, a prohibition on oaths, on knots in their clothes, on seeing humans at work, all served to distance the flamens from the domain of profani, ordinary people, and to make them sacer, sacred, the possession of the gods. The commoetaculum was a practical aide to this end: people were kept at a physical remove from the priest with a judicious prod of his wand. There might not seem an obvious class dimension to all this, except that the character of this priesthood was felt to reflect in important ways the behaviour and lifestyle of the ancient elite of Rome. You could only be flamen Dialis if you were a patrician, a member of the ancient Roman aristocratic class, and if you and your parents and your wife’s parents were all married by an arcane ritual called confarreatio, a ceremony again restricted to the patrician class. So there is in fact a very aristocratic quality to this implement designed to maintain a proper distance between a Roman of high status and the general populace.

Ovid was a toff, too. But by the time he was writing Ex Ponto 4, he couldn’t afford such scruples. Ovid has been banished, partly for obscure reasons apparently related to conspiracies against Augustus, and partly for his risqué poem The Art of Love, to the edge of the Empire, Tomi on the Black Sea in modern Romania. A consistent theme of the poems he writes back to men who might help him overturn his exile (superbly crafted and moving poems, as I’ve also suggested before) is how desperately he misses his home city. In general Roman authors could always conjure up a bit of ambivalence about Rome: wealthy, powerful, but in danger of neglecting the rustic virtues of simplicity and thrift that made them great in the first place. Ovid had no such qualms, delighting unapologetically in the vibrant society and culture of Augustan Rome.

To send such a man away from Rome was unusually vindictive, and that’s no doubt why Augustus did it. In exile Ovid dwells obsessively on the city from which he is banned, to the extent that, as a colleague put it during the seminar, we get a lot more detailed information about the city of Rome from Ovid far away on the Black Sea than we do from authors actually domiciled there.

In Ex Ponto 4.9 he celebrates the consulship won by Graecinus, another old associate he hopes will be able to make his case with the Emperor (Tiberius by now, as Augustus had recently died; but Tiberius proved no more sympathetic). Ovid imagines being on the spot as Graecinus goes through the elaborate ritual of inauguration, and it could not be more different from that fastidious priest with his pointy stick (4.9.21-8):

nec querulus, turba quamuis eliderer, essem,

sed foret a populo tum mihi dulce premi.

prospicerem gaudens quantus foret agminis ordo

densaque quam longum turba teneret iter,

quoque magis noris quam me uulgaria tangant,

spectarem qualis purpura te tegeret.

signa quoque in sella nossem formata curuli

et totum Numidi sculptile dentis opus.

Nor would I complain, though bruised by the crowd;/ at such a time it would be pleasant to feel the crush of the people./ I would behold with joy how long was the line of the procession/ and how dense the throng all along its route./ And that you may know how trivial things appeal to me,/ I would examine the texture of the purple you wear./ I would even inspect the figures carved on your curule chair,/ all the sculpted work of Numidian ivory.”

What “touches” (tangant) Ovid is uulgaria, a wonderfully suggestive word: trivial things, popular things, ordinary things. Ovid rejoices here in exactly what Juvenal would later complain so bitterly about, getting manhandled by crowds, emerging physically battered from a walk in the city. But it is the touch, the sensation of Rome that he yearns for: the things a Roman would take for granted, Graecinus’ consular robes with their purple border, and the ivory carvings on his official consular chair, in his imagination Ovid seems almost to be running his fingers over. He cannot get enough of the city of Rome, and cannot get too close to it.

But the poem to Graecinus may be the very last poem that Ovid ever wrote. This Roman is never going to set eyes on Rome again.

The late, lamented P. Ovidius Naso


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

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

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

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

Fine composition in the opening

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

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

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

A vintage piece of Ovidian wit

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

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

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

A bold illustration

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

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

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

Finally, real pathos

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

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

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

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

Cat people

My family had dogs when I was a kid, two corgis at a time. But it was when we got a dog for our kids, a single very non-pedigree jack russell/chihuahua cross, that I began wondering about the role pets fulfil within families. Our dog had a tangibly calming effect in a family where, with a special-needs child, peace and quiet are not exactly guaranteed. A couple of years ago on this blog I found myself contemplating Aurel Stein’s dog Dash (or rather one of Stein’s dogs called Dash, his favourite), which he gifted to his close friends the Allens in Oxford; through this dog, I tried to suggest, Stein and the Allens found a way to express their mutual affection for one other.

The undigested thoughts that follow are provoked by a rare trip to Wales last week, on the one hand, which had me thinking about my dad, and on the other by this very moving BBC report about Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, who runs a shelter for abandoned cats in the besieged city of Aleppo. Part of me watching it was thinking, “Typical: to get people to care, show them anything but the real human cost.” But one detail of the report clarified that this fluffy animal story was, actually, all about the human tragedy of Syria. Aljaleel explains how a little girl had brought her cat to him before her family fled to Turkey, and how she begs for news about the cat, and Aljaleel sends her photos by phone.

That girl may just be missing her cat. But cats and dogs stand in so easily for family and domestic life, and at some level I’m sure that in her anxiety about her cat, the girl is also expressing the pain and dislocation of having had to leave her home. When she gets her beloved cat back, God willing, she will be back home again, life will be as it was, and she can resume her childhood.

That, combined with my day in Wales, reminded me of a story that my dad used to tell. It is  the early 1920s, and he and his parents (he is only 2) are moving house, from a tenancy at Llanfihangel Aberbythych, near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, to a freehold farm in Newport Pagnell, Bucks. My grandparents were Welsh-speakers, and I’ve always felt that that relocation in the 1920s was not so different, in terms of the experience of the migrants, from more recent immigration from further abroad.

My dad’s story also involved the family cat. When the Morgans relocated to Newport Pagnell, the cat went missing, and turned up months later back in Llanfihangel, 150 miles away.

Now, I’ve no reason to disbelieve that the cat did make that journey back to Carmarthenshire. There are plenty of parallels, both cats and dogs. But aside from the facts of the case, it seems to me that this is a clear-cut piece of mythologising. That sounds intolerably pompous, I know, but if myth is essentially just the expression of beliefs or attitudes in symbolic terms, then this oft-repeated story is the Morgan myth of migration: the cat rejecting the new home in England embodies the deep anxieties its human family felt about leaving that home for a very different kind of place.

It may be more personal than that: my dad remembered being very unhappy indeed about leaving Wales, especially missing Mamgu, his grandmother, who had stayed behind in Llanfihangel. Another story he told was about his own attempt to return to Wales, at the age of three. He didn’t get very far (though far enough to freak out his parents), but again it makes sense that the idea of the cat succeeding in getting home was so important to him because it did what he couldn’t.

The peripatetic pet: a good story, or a proxy for our deepest human feelings about home and family? Pity the jack russell/chihuahua cross owned by an academic.

Horace on living

A rapid post, this, and topical in a way I wouldn’t have chosen.

I love the Latin language. I struggle to explain why. Something to do with its brevity, and the scope an inflected language gives to shift words around for maximum effect.

No Roman poet exploited these inherent characteristics of Latin more effectively than Horace, and a poem like Horace, Odes 3.29 has it all for me, and not just for me: formal beauty allied to profound ethical truths. I like this poem so much that when I fell over an inscription of a line of it at a charity auction once, I parted with rather a lot of money. Latin and stone go so well together.


There is so much that’s great about 3.29: the way Horace expresses the unpredictability of life through an image of a river in spate, his description flowing river-like from stanza to stanza; the image he uses to express a proper indifference to misfortune: “I wrap myself in my virtue,” he says, mea/ uirtute me inuoluo, as if virtue were a warm and waterproof coat.

But my very favourite thing in 3.29 is a single word, uixi, “I have lived,” at line 43. It is perfectly chosen and perfectly placed, and it represents the key principle of the poem’s philosophy.

Here are the two stanzas around it, with a translation much indebted to David West. Horace is explaining that what matters is the present moment, living life in the here and now. We cannot influence what the future will bring, but if we have lived life to the full when we can, what happens in time to come is of no significance.

… ille potens sui                                                  41
laetusque deget, cui licet in diem
dixisse “uixi.” cras uel atra
nube polum pater occupato

uel sole puro. non tamen irritum                     45
quodcumque retro est efficiet neque
diffinget infectumque reddet
quod fugiens semel hora uexit.

A man will be in control of his life
and happy, if he can say at each day’s end
“I have lived.” Tomorrow Jupiter can
fill the sky with black cloud

or with pure sunlight, but he will not cancel
whatever is behind,
nor reshape or unmake
what once the fleeting hour has brought.

Horace’s poem is written in a verse form called alcaics, a metre in four-line stanzas which Horace had inherited from the archaic Greek poet Alcaeus, but given a character all his own. Horatian alcaics have a very clear dynamic: in broad terms, there are two identical lines followed by a third that slows the flow of the poetry, and a much faster fourth. What creates the impression of drag in the third line is mainly its contrast with the previous two. The first two lines normally have a word break, a pause or caesura, after the fifth syllable, but while the third line starts off as if it is going to follow the same pattern, it then pushes on without a break. The second stanza here is typical: uel sole puro//, quodcumque retrost// in the first two lines, but diffinget infectumque in the third, no break until after the seventh syllable.

In slightly more technical terms, here is an alcaic stanza, with _ marking a long syllable, u marking a short, and // marking the normal/expected location of word breaks:

_ _ u _ _ // _ u u _ u _

_ _ u _ _ // _ u u _ u _

_ _ u _ _ _ u _ _

_ u u _ u u _ u _ _

The things to notice are the identical shape of the first two lines, and the way the third line also begins the same way, but has no break after the fifth syllable. Horace has a habit of placing in the middle of the third line a word needing emphasis, or suiting in other ways this expansive position. Here is an example from earlier in Odes 3.29 (ll. 9-12), where Horace urges Maecenas to abandon his obsession with the city of Rome, and join him for drinkies in the country:

fastidiosam// desere copiam et
molem propinquam// nubibus arduis,
omitte mirari beatae
fumum et opes strepitumque Romae.

Leave behind cloying abundance and
that pile that reaches to the high clouds,
stop admiring
the smoke and riches and racket of wealthy Rome.

In the first two lines there are word breaks after the fifth syllable. The word set in that expansive centre of the third line is mirari, “admire,” “wonder at,” and the placement is very effective: we dwell on Maecenas’ obsession with the city as he indulges his obsession. Meanwhile the frantic fourth line well suits the distracting sensory chaos of the big smoke. Given that practically all of Horace’s alcaic stanzas follow this dynamic of expansive third line and skittery fourth, of course, any exception becomes eye-catching.

At l. 43, dixisse uixi. cras uel atra, there is just such an exception to the rule, and it’s gorgeous. What we have in 43 is a third line that doesn’t expand, but stops short just like the first and second line. The word uixi not only introduces a pause after the fifth syllable, where we don’t expect it, but brings a very strong pause: Horace ends a sentence where we were anticipating continuation. The effect on the word uixi is to underline and isolate it.

I’ve suggested that “I have lived” is the essence of this poem. If you can say this to yourself today, Horace tells us, it simply doesn’t matter what happens tomorrow. I find that a beautiful sentiment in itself, but Horace has made it more beautiful, in the subtlest of ways, by detaching it from the rest of the poetic line by means of that unexpected pause. Vixi, “I have lived,” stands alone. Because there is nothing else that needs to be said.

Charlotte Easton died far too young. I only met her once, though we chatted from time to time on Twitter. She lived life to the full, with her love of cycling, her delight in teaching, her passion for Latin and Greek. If I love Latin, its chiselled clarity, the people I rate highest in the world are those who keep the study of this language I love alive, sharing my enthusiasm for it, but possessed of a precious capacity to communicate the joy of it that I can only wish I had.

Charlotte, uixisti.



I’ve had a busy summer composing an annotated bibliography. It’s a bibliography of Roman poetic metre, and I wrote a book tangential to that topic a few years back (how tangential, I now fully appreciate.) Not the most stimulating activity, it’s fair to say, and if there’s anything better gauged to play on academic insecurities, I can’t think what it is. There is so much I don’t know…

What this exercise has reminded me of, though, is what caught my interest all those years ago, the moments when an ancient poem’s metre is absolutely critical to its meaning. Catullus 11 falls into this category, I believe (I wrote about it here), and Statius’ Silvae 4.3, a poem about a road in which the poet makes it increasingly hard to distinguish road-building and versifying, or so I once argued. Then there was an epigram by Martial, 3.29, composed in a metre called “Sotadean”, quite a rare metre, but one of the most fascinating metrical phenomena that ancient poetry had to offer.

Here is Martial 3.29 in its entirety:

Has cum gemina compede dedicat catenas,
Saturne, tibi Zoïlus, anulos priores.

These chains with their twin fetters are dedicated
to you by Zoïlus, Saturn: the rings he used to wear.

Zoilus is a regular butt of Martial’s abuse, and here we are told that a man who now wears the insignia of high status, gold rings, used to be a slave. True to my topic, though, the Sotadean metre has its own contribution to make. I’ll get to that, eventually…

Greco-Roman metre is governed by quantities, the length of syllables, and Martial’s poem follows the structure of a standard version of the Sotadean ( _ is a long syllable, u a short):

_ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _

Just a pattern of long and short syllables, then. But what makes the Sotadean so interesting is how the ancients responded to this particular pattern. Here is the ancient critic Demetrius (Eloc. 189) describing what happens when a poem is turned from another metre into Sotadeans:

“A composition <is described as affected when it is> anapaestic and like the emasculated, undignified metres, especially the Sotadean because of its rather effeminate rhythm, as in … ‘brandishing the ash spear Pelian right over his shoulder’ in place of ‘brandishing the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder.’ The line seems to have altered its whole shape, like figures in myth who change from males into females.”

A bit of explanation. Demetrius identifies the Sotadean as an especially “effeminate” metre, then quotes by way of illustration two versions of a line from Homer’s Iliad, 22.133: Homer’s original, in the epic metre of dactylic hexameters, and (before that) a reworking of the same line in Sotadeans. Demetrius then records his feelings about what has happened when a line written in hexameter is converted into Sotadean: it is as if it it has metamorphosed from male to female.

Here are the two versions of the line, Sotadean first, then the Homeric original in hexameter:

σείων μελίην Πηλιάδα δεξιὸν κατ’ ὦμον

σείων Πηλιάδα μελίην κατὰ δεξιὸν ὦμον

Both these lines mean “brandishing the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder”, but while the second one scans as a hexameter, _ _ _ u u _ u u _ u u _ u u _ _, the first follows the same scheme as Martial’s poem on Zoïlus, _ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _. This may not look like much to you and me, but to Demetrius that reordering of long and short syllables is weird and unsettling.

The Sotadean version of this line was written by Sotades himself, the Greek poet who invented and lent his name to this metrical length. Very few certain fragments of his work survives. That one is Fragment 4 Powell; in a poem that included Fragment 1 he was so rude about the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus, and the king’s marriage to his own sister Arsinoe, that he was sealed in a lead jar and dropped in the sea, allegedly. In our Fragment 4 he seems to be engaged in “translating” Homer’s Iliad from hexameters to Sotadeans, and we need to ask why.

The first thing to say is that converting hexameters into Sotadeans was quite a popular activity in the ancient world. Quintilian (9.4.90) gives us a Latin hexameter, astra tenet caelum, mare classes, area messem (“Heaven holds the stars, the sea the fleets, the threshing floor the harvest”), which, if you read it backwards, messem area, classes mare, caelum tenet astra, turns into a Sotadean. Similarly, (Demetrius 1.516.29-30 Keil) esse bonus qui uis, cole diuos, optime Pansa (hexameter); Pansa optime, diuos cole, si uis bonus esse (Sotadean), “If you want to be respectable, worship the gods, excellent Pansa”. In the fourth century Optatianus Porfyrius, trick poet par excellence (see Sarah Bond on the remarkable poetic creations of Optatianus here), included “reversible” hexameters/Sotadeans in his Poem 15 in praise of Constantine. William Levitan (reference at the bottom) explains how this poem contains every trick in the box, but this one strongly suggests that Romans of Optatian’s day had lost a sense of what the Sotadean had entailed earlier in antiquity.

I say this because, whatever the truth of the story about his death, Sotades’ poetry was seriously subversive stuff. Strabo gives us the clue when he tells us (Geog. 14.1.41, the same forwards as backwards) that ἦρξε δὲ Σωτάδης μὲν πρῶτος τοῦ κιναιδολογεῖν, “Sotades was the first to write as a cinaedus“, in other words that the main concern of his poetry was to describe what the ancients considered his perverse sex life. A κίναιδος/cinaedus was a man who assumed the passive role in a sex act with another man, behaviour which, according to ancient ethics, was reprehensible and shocking enough to exclude him from the category of true men.

This starts to explain Sotades’ interest in dactylic hexameters. If the Sotadean was the metre of the cinaedus, the hexameter represented its polar opposite: it was known as the “heroic” metre (herous in Latin, τὸ ἡρωικόν in Greek), the vehicle for epic and its praise of Great Men, models of normative masculinity. Varro expressed the relationship snappily: ᾿Αχιλλέως ἡρωικός, ἰωνικὸς κιναίδου (Men. Sat. 360 Cèbe), “the heroic hexameter is the metre of Achilles, and the ionic (the class to which the Sotadean belongs) is that of the cinaedus.” When Sotades converted hexameters into Sotadeans, and epic moments into cinaedic, what might seem to us a very intellectual exercise, transposition from one metre to another, amounts to an assault on the sexual mores of the ancient world. And as any Classicist can tell you, from their sexual ethics flowed much that was fundamental to Greco-Roman society.

Perhaps I don’t need to explain that the line of Homer changes more than its shape when it is converted into Sotadeans. Homer is describing the spear of Achilles, the massive ash-hewn weapon that is his defining accessory: when Patroclus dresses in Achilles’ armour in Iliad 16, the spear of Achilles is the one thing he does not (because he cannot) borrow (“Only the spear of the peerless son of Aeacus he did not take,/ the spear heavy and huge and strong; none other of the Achaeans could/ wield it, but Achilles alone was skilled to wield it,/ the Pelian spear of ash, that Cheiron had given to his dear father/ from the peak of Pelion, to be slaughter for heroes,” 16.140-144). This spear defines Achilles, in other words. It is the essence of his heroic character.

Well, what can I say? The long thin appendage in Sotades’ version of the line is not a spear, that’s for certain.

Turning back to Martial, there’s something broadly similar going on. The poem is presented as a dedicatory epigram, and that had a proper form closely related to the hexameter, the elegiac couplet consisting of a dactylic hexameter followed by a dactylic pentameter. Martial’s poem, converting elegiacs into Sotadeans, subverts the respectable act of dedication just as Sotades had the noble arms of Achilles, implying that Zoïlus and his dedication are morally corrupt, that he is sexually perverted, indeed that Zoïlus’ very rise in Roman society proves that society’s decadence (dedicating his fetters to Saturn, the Lord of Misrule, is an telling detail, too).

In so many ways, a deeply unpleasant poem, Martial 3.29, but one that gets much of its force from associating its target  with  _ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _ . For the ancients, that was metrical code for utter depravity.

C. Connors, Petronius the poet: verse and literary tradition in the Satyricon (Cambridge, 1998), 30-31;

W. Levitan, “Dancing at the end of the rope: Optatian Porfyry and the field of Roman verse,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 115 (1985), 245-69;

Ll. Morgan, Musa Pedestris (2010), 40-48;

R. Pretagostini, Ricerche sulla poesia alessandrina: Teocrito, Callimaco, Sotade (Rome, 1984), 139-47.


A coin & a coup


In a new departure, a topical blog. In another new departure, a short one.

Here is a BBC article discussing the efforts of the Turkish coup plotters to seize control of the media. In a very contemporary twist, as they tried to secure TV networks and newspapers, etc., President Erdogan used his iPhone to make a critical intervention, phoning (and via FaceTime, physically appearing) on CNN. It’s still a confusing picture: Twitter and Facebook may have been blocked by the government, presumably to prevent the coup leaders from getting their message across, but other social networks, WhatsApp, Periscope, weren’t. All in all, it tells us how very difficult it is in 2016 to secure comprehensive control of information outlets, but also how crucial it remains to try to achieve that control if you have plans to usurp political authority.

In AD 271 there was a military coup somewhere on the Rhine frontier of the Roman Empire, and the evidence we have about it also suggests an attempt to control the media. The effect of the coup was to bring to power an emperor named Domitianus, or rather what our evidence tells us is that Domitianus claimed to be emperor, and as we know from Turkey, claims to be in control do not automatically amount to real control. Our evidence about Domitianus is simply this: there are coins bearing an image of him with the imperial motto around his head “IMP(ERATOR) C DOMITIANUS P(IUS) F(ELIX) AUG(USTUS).

The coins indicating that Domitianus was emperor also intimate that he wasn’t emperor for awfully long. In total only two examples of Domitianus coins have ever been found, one found during agricultural work in a vineyard near Nantes in 1900, and another found by a metal detectorist in 2003 at Chalgrove near Oxford. They are so rare that between the discovery of the first and the second coins, effective efforts were made to prove that the French example was a hoax. By this stage of the third century AD coins were being minted in massive quantities: if ever you find a Roman coin, it is very likely to be from this time. There are also lots of coin hoards from what was a very unstable period. Yet Domitianus features in just two of them. At Mildenhall in Wiltshire in 1978 a hoard of 55,000 “radiates” (as Domitianus’ style of coin is called) was found; at Normanby in Lincolnshire in 1985, 48,000 more of them: not a single Domitianus in sight. Even in the comparatively modest Chalgrove hoard, the Domitianus is one of nearly 5,000 coins in total.

Some historical context. Rome in the second half of the third century AD was in crisis. The emperor Valerian had been captured by the Persians in 260, a huge shock to the Empire. In the same year the Western Empire, Spain, Gaul, Germany and Britain, seceded under a rebel general named Postumus, and remained independent of Rome until 274, although Postumus’ successors ruled over a progressively smaller chunk of territory. Domitianus fits in after Postumus’ third successor Victorinus (269-71): plausibly Domitianus was involved in the putsch that removed Victorinus, seized control for a few days, and was then himself dispatched by Tetricus, who ruled the “Gallic Empire” until defeat by Aurelian in 274. Aurelian was the great reunifier of the Empire, bringing Zenobia’s Palmyra back into the fold as well. I hope that wasn’t too difficult to follow, but imagine living it.

About Domitianus himself we know practically nothing. Aside from the coins, there are scattered references in our sources to a general and a rebel by this name. To repeat, though, only the coins proclaim him emperor. Only the statement read out under pressure by the anchor on State TV TRT claimed the success of the Turkish coup, too. The point of similarity is what it takes in 2016, and what it takes in 271, to control the narrative. In the third century there was no TV, no mass media at all, but there was one medium which in its way did the same job of insinuating a message across the army and wider population. Coinage carrying the emperor’s image, and potentially other information too, could be used to communicate a claim to power. The other side of Domitianus’ coin carries an image of peace and plenty (a female figure carrying a libation bowl and cornucopia) and the legend CONCORDIA MILITUM, “Agreement among the Soldiers”, a more explicit claim of authority over the (crucial) armed forces.

So the equivalent of occupying the CNN offices in the third century was to secure the Royal Mint, and it looks like this was Domitianus’ first, and perhaps his only, act in pursuit of power. The evidence of the coins (the French and English examples are identical) seems to be that, while Domitianus managed to secure control of one of the Gallic Empire’s mints, in Cologne, he never controlled the principal mint in Trier. Trier, Augusta Treverorum, was Domitianus’s nemesis, or maybe his iPhone.

The coin of Domitianus found near Oxford is a rather unimpressive thing in the flesh, small and muddy-green, but it’s beautifully presented in the money gallery of the Ashmolean Museum, which is worth a visit for all kinds of other reasons.


Sylviane Estiot & Gildas Salaün, “L’usurpateur Domitianus”, Revue numismatique 160 (2004), 201-218.

Richard Abdy, “The Domitian II coin from Chalgrove: a Gallic emperor returns to history”, Antiquity 83 (2009), 751-757.