In 1926 Aurel Stein, the Hungarian/British archaeologist and explorer, spent two and a half months touring Upper Swat, then an independent princely state beyond the boundaries of British India. In 1926 it was for the first time peaceful enough, and friendly enough with the British authorities, for Stein to secure access. As with Afghanistan, Swat was a place that Stein had long aspired, and strived, to visit.
Aurel Stein’s aims in Swat were twofold, to explore Buddhist sites along the Swat valley, and to trace the route of Alexander the Great in his conquest of Swat in 327-326BC. In particular, he wanted to identify the site of one of Alexander’s most celebrated military exploits, the mountain fastness of Aornos where the people of Swat had taken refuge from Alexander’s attack. This assault was in part motivated, the ancient sources tell us, by Alexander’s desire to rival Heracles, who had long before tried and failed to capture the “Rock”. Stein’s account of his tour, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus (a great read, I should say), opens with an apology to Xuanzang, the seventh-century Chinese monk whose account of his travels to India in search of sacred texts had been Stein’s guide across Central Asia (and was again in Swat), but who on this occasion was playing second fiddle to a fascination with Alexander that Stein had harboured since boyhood.
Aurel Stein’s trip to Swat inaugurated the archaeological investigation of the valley, subsequently taken up by the Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci and his successors in the Missione Archaeologica Italiana in Pakistan. Tucci himself, who had a special expertise in Tibetan Buddhism, came to Swat after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s.
Stein had a candidate for Aornos, and it was was Pir-Sar, “Peak of the Saint”, some distance to the east of the Swat river. At the climax of his book (p.119) this exceptionally fit 63-year old reaches the top of the mountain and establishes to his satisfaction that it was indeed Aornos:
“It was long after midnight before I could seek warmth among my rugs. But the growing conviction that Aornos was found at last kept my spirits buoyant in spite of benumbed hands and weary feet. Alexander, so Arrian and Curtius tell us, offered sacrifices to the gods when he had gained possession of the ‘Rock’. I had no victory to give thanks for. Yet I, too, felt tempted to offer a libation to Pallas Athene for the fulfilment of a scholar’s hope, long cherished and long delayed.”
In another blog (one I feel great fondness for, as it secured me an invitation to Swat) I expressed my view, which is entirely indebted to other people’s research and insight, that Stein was wrong about the location of Aornos, as well as about his idolisation of Alexander: there is a more plausible site for Aornos first proposed by Tucci, and that site also gives its capture a very different complexion. Here in Alexander’s track, though, Stein elegantly links the sacrifices that Alexander made to Athena and Victory on the summit of Aornos (Curtius 8.11.24) with Athena’s role as the protector of artisans and scholars such as Stein. In fact Athena’s patronage of Stein was even more intimate: on the front cover of his books was embossed an image of Athena which he had unearthed in Xinjiang, China. (As I explain here, I don’t think Stein appreciated quite how closely tied to Alexander his image actually was.)
I went to Swat (just a week in my case) interested in both these Pallas Athenas, the warrior’s and the scholar’s. In other words, I wanted to see for myself why Tucci, and more recently Luca M. Olivieri, were so convinced that Alexander’s Aornos was not Pir-Sar but Mt. Elam, a mountain much more central to Swat. (It is, as I shall explain, in important ways a matter of seeing.) But I also wanted to understand why Stein was so determined to locate Aornos at Pir-Sar, because I think his misplacement is potentially just as fascinating as anything to do with Alexander.
Stein had devoted a lot of time and effort to this question. In 1904 he had managed to visit Mt. Mahaban, on the right bank of the river Indus, a site that had been proposed for Aornos fifty years before by James Abbott, an imperial functionary at the cutting edge of British expansion into N-W India, and the man who gave his name to Osama bin Laden’s adopted home at Abbottabad. On this occasion Stein was able, with regret, to rule out Abbott’s theory about Mahaban, but he could investigate no further himself until 1926.
When he did, it was another site on the Indus he plumped for: Pir-Sar overlooks the river some way upstream of Mahaban. It’s worth considering why Abbott, Stein and a host of others were determined to locate Aornos by the Indus. The obvious reason is that in three ancient accounts it is explicitly stated that the base of the mountain was washed by the waters of the river (Diodorus 17.85.3; Strabo 15.1.8; Curtius 8.11.7, cf. 8.11.12)–they are clearly following a common source. Classical sources of course carried authority for the classically-educated Europeans engaged in this quest.
But something that is altogether clearer when you’re physically there, specifically when you’re approaching the Indus in a taxi from Islamabad airport, is the psychological compulsion for the British to locate Aornos by the Indus. British jurisdiction extended as far as the Indus and no further at the relevant point: Swat never fell under British control. Abbott had developed his theory about Aornos by a combination of local intelligence and a telescope trained on the mountains from the eastern side of the river. (He painted a watercolour of his view.) Bound up with the British search for a defensible boundary to its Indian possessions was the pursuit of a pretext for their presence in this territory. The activities of Alexander, a familiar historical figure in this profoundly alien space, were of intense interest to all the colonial officials involved in the borderlands: my favourite example is Alexander Burnes squandering a few days of his mission to Bokhara scouring the Punjab for a trace of the twelve altars to the Olympian gods raised by Alexander on the river Hyphasis. Abbott training his telescope on the far side of the Indus is an intensely imperial moment too. The British occupied one side of a river both strategic and fraught with classical associations. The site of Alexander’s exploit was all-but in their grasp, and it had to be one of those shadowy mountains just on the other side of the Indus.
“The construction of a map of Sohaut (Swat) is a matter of much importance,” Abbott says by way of conclusion to his long argument for Mt. Mahaban: “Sooner or later the Sohauties will compel us to punish them. Every possible means should then be applied to add to our knowledge of the features of that rich and extensive valley, and imperfect as is the sketch map now offered, it will yet I trust serve as a foundation for more satisfactory charts, and if so, the toil it has cost me, will be well rewarded.” The search for Alexander and the work to extend and consolidate colonial territory were, as I say, thoroughly intertwined. Even in Stein’s case, it was an officer involved in a border campaign along the Indus, Col. R. A. Wauhope, who had given him the tip about Pir-Sar, and Stein himself had crossed the river and investigated Buddhist sites while attached to a punitive force dispatched in 1898. Commenting in The Times on Stein’s “discovery” of Aornos in 1926, Francis Younghusband describes how, “during the Chitral campaign of 30 years ago, when the engineers were road-making through the Malakand Pass into Swat, they came across evidences of an ancient road made in Buddhist times, as well as many artistic remains of the period” (27 May 1926 = H. Wang, Sir Aurel Stein in The Times p. 84).
That winding road up to “the once blood-soaked heights of the Malakand” is still the main route into Swat. Here is a view back from Malakand toward Mardan and the Kabul river:
Whatever their reasons for placing Aornos beside the Indus, Abbott and Stein and all their many fellow Aornos-hunters were almost certainly wrong, and it took the proper access to Swat achieved by Giuseppe Tucci (as well as, I believe, an academic mind somewhat less fettered by respect for classical authors) to offer a better solution. (The Indus detail is perplexing, for sure, but I need no persuading that the ancients could get their geography very badly wrong.) Tucci proposed Mt. Elam, his persuasive argument being that it was just the kind of place the people of Swat would take refuge in, a mountain considered sacred by the people of Swat since time immemorial. Elam is an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus, site of the Ram Takht, the throne of Rama, the Indian deity, while Xuanzang claims “Hilo” as the place where the Buddha in an earlier existence had surrendered his life in return for hearing half a line of scripture. Buddhist foundations on the slopes of the mountain confirm its sanctity. The stupa of Amluk-dara stands just off an ancient path to the summit of Elam–in the words of Dr Olivieri, it is a station on the pilgrimage route to the summit, and a watchtower nearby from the Hindushahi period (tenth century) underlines the importance of this, the shortest route to the mountain top.
In my earlier blog I made something of Tucci’s idea that the very name Aornos, as recorded by Greek sources, might conceal “aarana”, “a common name for any sheltered place”: this was a place of refuge, of protection by the gods. A different kind of sense of the centrality of Elam to the part of Swat attacked by Alexander can be got from a remarkable text found and translated by Tucci, the account of a thirteenth-century Tibetan monk Orgyan pa. Tucci compares the author to Kipling’s unworldly Lama in Kim: his description of Swat is “quite possibly an almost contemporary record of a journey to a country which was already considered as a magic land, and was seen through the eyes of a man who [because of his Buddhist beliefs] had no sight for reality”, capable (in other words) of conveying less the reality of Elam than the awe that this mountain could command:
“To the east there is the mountain Ilo, which is the foremost of all mountains of the Jambudvipa (the World).There is no medical herb growing on the earth which does not grow there. It is charming on account of its herbs, stalks, leaves and flowers. Sarabhas and other antelopes wander there quite freely. There are many gardens of grape; beautiful birds of every kind and of gracious colours make a deep chattering.
From that country we went to the west for seven days;
Up to the mountain Ilo, the peak of K’a rag k’ar
In the mountain, sarabhas play
And there are gardens of grape in abundance.
I did not covet any thing.”
From reading Susan Whitfield and Gregory Schopen*, who explain the Buddhist association of thought between natural beauty, especially the cultivated landscape of the garden, and religious sanctity, I realise that when this Tibetan monk describes Elam as verdant and fertile, he is in effect saying that it is an intensely sacred place. If I understand Aurel Stein correctly, Xuanzang had converted the ancient name of Swat, Uddiyana, into the Sanskrit word for “garden”, udyana, with the same implication that Swat is a beautiful and thus a sacred space. But for Orgyan pa, Mt. Elam is the most beautiful, the most sacred place in the “magic land” of Swat.
For me, in my resolutely secular way, a comparable effect was achieved simply by standing in the archaeological site of Bazira in Barikot (a city captured by Alexander) and looking toward Mount Elam. Not for the first time I discovered that there’s nothing like physically placing yourself somewhere for understanding ancient perceptions of a place. Elam simply dominates the view. This really cannot be conveyed by a wide-angle shot, but I’ve done my best.
Obviously, though, this is where you would seek refuge from Alexander the Great.
A detail recorded by all the ancient sources, as I’ve mentioned, is that Alexander’s motivation for storming Aornos was partly that Heracles had unsuccessfully attempted it before him. Heracles’ failure to reach the summit was presented as an act of piety, after divine displeasure had been signalled to him by an earthquake. More Heracles than Alexander, I failed to see the summit of Aornos because I heeded warnings that Elam is still a refuge, these days for a type of person best not encountered if possible.
But another thing I’ve been reminded of in Swat is how fundamentally tied to the landscape Heracles is. Any unusual island, promontory, rock-formation, hot spring or mountain was very likely to be associated with this hero in his wanderings across the world. And while they probably shouldn’t be pushed too far, the parallels between what Westerners (and especially British) saw in Alexander and what Alexander and his army found in Heracles are striking.
In Alexander the British Empire found a precedent for their own presence in Central Asia, evidence that they were not the rank interlopers they appeared to be. If the ground was “Classic”, it was familiar–it was, in a sense, “ours”. In antiquity Heracles had long played a similar role for Greeks on the move, a god of trade and travel and colonisation whose myths of wandering always offered Greeks the option that Heracles had been there (and “there” might be Cadiz or Monaco or the Nile Delta) before them. Alexander had a special connection to Heracles, claiming descent from him, and he put the hero on his coins: it is sometimes hard to distinguish images of Heracles and Alexander, so close is their assimilation. The stories associated with Aornos are another illustration. Wherever Alexander went, so also had Heracles, assuring the Macedonians and Greeks that this was a place to which they had a valid claim.
The Heracles that came to India with Alexander entered the local artistic repertoire. This is a link to a Heracles apparently from Pakistan, now in the Ashmolean Museum, and here is a fragment of a jug handle from Charsadda, ancient Peshawar, which represents either Heracles in his lionskin, or Alexander as Heracles in his lionskin (from M. Wheeler, Charsada p. 115 and pl. XXXVIb; for a similar artefact, cf. J. Marshall, Taxila 2.433 and 3. pl. 130f, no. 226b):
I did find myself wondering if this silver repoussé head found at Sirkap, Taxila by Marshall (but stolen from the Taxila Museum in 1999), and identified by him as Dionysus or Silenus (J. Marshall, Taxila 2.614-5), might actually be Heracles, who is often depicted garlanded and drinking, and more often than Dionysus depicted bearded:
More dramatically, and excitingly, Heracles found his way into the visual language of Buddhism, a religion of which the Indo-Greek kings who ruled this area in the second century BC, indirect heirs of Alexander, seem to have been significant patrons, the most famous such king, Menander, especially. In Gandharan art Heracles becomes Vajrapani, a figure accompanying the Buddha who holds the vajra or thunderbolt (this is what his name Vajrapani means) which symbolises the power of Buddhist insight, but also regularly sporting a lionskin and/or physically evoking Heracles. Here is one of a very large number of Vajrapanis I snapped in Swat and Peshawar, this one in the Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif, and originally from the site of Nimogram:
Why this Heracles/Vajrapani became so important to Gandharan Buddhist art is a matter of much debate. Vajrapani has the role of guiding and protecting the Buddha, and the physical presence represented by Heracles suits that well enough. One explanation by Katsumi Tanabe, though, emphasises the connection of the vajra with the Indian god/hero Indra, a god of war (also, like Heracles, fond of a drink) who is regularly represented attending the Buddha: the Gandharan Vajrapani, so the theory goes, is a Greek-influenced realisation of some version of this same Indra (my thanks to @kaeshour for pointing out to me that Indra is called vajrapani with a small v, so to speak, in the Mahabharata and elsewhere).** (Heracles is certainly very good at being mistaken for non-Greek hero-deities, whether Indra or Melqart or Verethragna.) Tanabe cites this Vajrapani in the Peshawar Museum, who clearly carrries more than a hint of Heracles, but also wears Indra’s characteristic spherical cap (also to be seen on the Kanishka casket, where Indra and Brahma attend the Buddha):
I am way beyond any knowledge of what I’m talking about by now, needless to say, but what anyone can see here is an interesting mix of heroic exploits localised in Swat. Olivieri plausibly explains the idea in the Alexander historians that Heracles had tried and failed to capture Aornos as a Macedonian/Greek reinterpretation of a local myth, maybe a story of Thraetaona or Indra, Persian and Indian versions of the Indo-European dragon-fighting hero.*** From many centuries later comes a peculiar appropriation of similar heroic myth for the Buddha. It is a story concerned, as in the classic form of such stories, with a dragon and a water source crucial for agriculture. As told in Xuanzang’s account of his travels, the dragon Apalala was interfering with the flow of the river Swat, on which the valley’s prosperity of course depends, and the Buddha, out of his universal pity for creation, persuaded the dragon to relent. He did so either by striking the mountainside himself with the vajra, Indra’s characteristic weapon, or by bringing along with him Vajrapani, brandishing the vajra, as the muscle.
In either case, some more or less distant relation to the story that Alexander’s army heard in Swat had persisted and entered Buddhist belief, and it isn’t hard to see how Heracles could also have maintained an existence for centuries in this resonant environment. The transformation from Alexander’s ancestor to an attendant of the Buddha and enforcer of his universal empathy is pretty remarkable, all the same.
After the Buddha subdued the dragon, according to Xuanzang, he left this imprint of his feet in the rock, the size of which is supposed to vary with the merit that the viewer has accrued (I’ve left my own feet visible to give an idea how huge they are, and how colossal my, and now your, merit is). These footprints were also seen by Faxian and Song Yun, both also Chinese monks, in the fifth and sixth centuries, and by Aurel Stein in 1926, at Tirat on the right bank of the Swat: they are now in the Swat Museum at Saidu Sharif.
Song Yun says that it looks like an imprint left by the Buddha in the mud, and in the well-watered, fertile, much-coveted, and for all these reasons sacred valley of the Swat that certainly seems appropriate.
*G. Schopen, “The Buddhist ‘monastery’ and the Indian garden: aesthetics, assimilations, and the siting of monastic establishments,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 126 (2006), 487-505;
**K. Tanabe, “Why is the Buddha Sakyamuni accompanied by Hercules/Vajrapani? Farewell to Yaksa-theory,” East and West 55 (2005), 363-81;
***L. M. Olivieri, “Notes on the problematical sequence of Alexander’s itinerary in Swat, a geo-historical approach,” East and West 46 (1996), 45-78.
I have just spent a week in Swat, N.-W. Pakistan, the guest of Dr. Luca M. Olivieri and the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, based in Saidu Sharif. I had been planning to blog a daily journal once I was back in the U.K., but the best-laid plans, etc.: a bout of food poisoning got in the way, and I’ll blog selected highlights over the next few months instead. Today I’m starting with one of the last sites I visited, which was also one of the most memorable.
Jahanabad lies in a side valley off the main River Swat. The road from Saidu Sharif and Mingora tracks along the edge of the main river: when Aurel Stein visited in 1926 there was no road, and he had to ride his horse through the river. Then at Manglor or Manglawar we turned up to the right, and before long we could see what we were aiming for: a huge 7th-century Buddha carved on a cliff dominating the approach up the valley. At six metres tall the Jahanabad Buddha was claimed to be the largest carved buddha in Central Asia after the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The connection to Bamiyan would prove to be regrettably apt in other ways.
Seeing the Buddha from afar is one thing. To get up close to it you walk up the mountain through an orchard of persimmon trees underplanted with onions (which scented the path), fragments of ancients structures visible at the edges of the orchard. I was being led by Akhtar Munir, also known as Tota, who as a young man (he showed me a photo) had worked for Giuseppe Tucci, the great Italian scholar who established what is now called ISMEO, Associazione Internazionale di Studi sul Mediterraneo e l’Oriente, and the Missione Archeologica Italiana in Pakistan, based at the Mission House in Saidu Sharif. Tota and I communicated in basic Italian on this hillside in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to the intense amusement of the policeman who was accompanying us, and Tota put me to shame with the cracking pace he set as we climbed. He was careful, as we went, to pick out an ancient staircase that survived in fragments up the mountain–the original staircase associated with access by the pious to the Buddha image above.
We passed a spring, then at length emerged onto a ledge below the Buddha image. In 1926 Aurel Stein commented how difficult it was to take a decent photo, and this is partly because, as restorers of the image recently discovered, it is designed to be viewed from a precise location ten metres below it. The head alone is 1.6m high, rendered disproportionately large for reasons of perspective. My best shot, with apologies:
The Buddha may be hard to photograph, but the view back down the valley toward Manglawar and the Swat river conveys how dominant was the position occupied by the Buddha. Tota and the policeman are taking a breather in the foreground:
We were in fact in the middle of a massive ritual complex. The architectural fragments in the orchards below were what remained of a Buddhist monastery encompassing the spring, with the staircase rising up through the monastery toward the Buddha. Above us, on the top of the mountain, were the remains of a stupa, to which paths from our location led up. Further images and inscribed rocks in the vicinity, and caves with indications of ritual use, confirm how significant a cult centre it was in its day.
In a recent article (“The itinerary of O rgyan pa in Swat/Uddiyana (second half of 13th Century)”, Journal of Asian Civilizations 40 ), Dr Olivieri establishes that additional confirmation of the site’s importance comes in an account by a Tibetan pilgrim to Swat (ancient Uddiyana) in the 13th Century, O rgyan pa (whose name means “the man of Uddiyana”: his trip made him famous), originally translated by Giuseppe Tucci in Travels of Tibetan pilgrims in the Swat valley (Calcutta, 1940), at p. 52. O rgyan pa describes a temple called Mangalaor, founded by king Indraboti, “where there are various stone images of Buddha (Munindra), Tara and Lokesvara” (aspects of the Buddha). Mangalaor must be Manglawar, and Indrabhuti, in the Tibetan tradition, was both himself an important teacher and also the spiritual father of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the figure credited with the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet.
Aurel Stein may have complained about the difficulties of photographing the Jahanabad Buddha, but he also commented that its elevated position had protected it from anyone who might have wished it harm. In September 2007, however, the Buddha was defaced by Taliban looking to emulate the achievements of their fellow-militants over the border in Afghanistan. The attack on the image, with rockets and later explosives, was a highly symbolic gesture at a time when the Taliban were extending their control over Swat. In 2009 they also blew up a boulder decorated with an image of Avalokitesvara, “pre-eminently the dispenser of mercy and help in the northern Buddhist Pantheon” in Stein’s words. Over five seasons from 2012 Dr Olivieri and the Italian Mission have meticulously reconstructed the Buddha’s face, a task complicated further by the subtle issues of perspective mentioned earlier. The result is a fine piece of contemporary reconstruction, which advertises what is new but manages also to convey the impact of the original monument. The Avalokisvara boulder, blown to pieces by the Taliban, has also been reconstituted, and just this year was installed in the garden of the Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif, itself almost entirely rebuilt after a huge bomb blast severely damaged it in 2008:
This story is bound to resonate with me, so reminiscent of Bamiyan but with an overwhelmingly positive outcome. More importantly, though, it illustrates both the determination of the people and authorities of Swat to preserve their incredibly rich archaeological environment, and the commitment of the Italian Mission to apply their academic and technical skills to supporting them in that task. The symbolism of this restored Buddha looking down over its valley is intensely powerful.
The archaeological study of Swat began with Aurel Stein’s visit to the princely state of Swat in 1926. (On Stein’s activities in the North-West Frontier Province and beyond, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, see this excellent account by Wannaporn Rienjang.) His description of the Buddhist remains in this valley in his popular account On Alexander’s Track to the Indus ends with some charming speculation about the persistence of ancient observation in this remarkable place (p. 80):
“About half a mile to the east of [Manglawar], alongside of the track leading up the valley, there are some large trees where wild-duck abound by day and night. They gather there in great numbers from their feeding-grounds on the network of channels and pools formed by the Swat river and the large stream that joins it from the side of Manglawar. The birds while in the trees or flying to and from them are considered sacrosanct, though elsewhere the Swatis eagerly shoot and trap them. No explanation was forthcoming of the asylum thus granted. Could it possibly be connected with the fact that the mound of the great ruined Stupa already mentioned rises not far off?”
A blog on something that caught my attention at a conference this week, an epitaph (AE 1928, no. 73) discovered in Rome in the 1920s:
Behold, traveller, the ashes of Sulpicia the reader,
to whom had been given the slave name Petale.
She had lived in number more than thirty-four years
and had given birth to a son, Aglaos, in this world.
She had seen all the good things of nature. She flourished in art.
She excelled in beauty. She had grown in talent.
Jealous Fate was unwilling for her to lead a lengthy time in life;
their very distaff failed the Fates.
The suggestion made during the conference was that what I’ve given as the translation of the first three words, “the ashes of Sulpicia the reader”, was only one option: they could also be read as “the ashes of the reader of Sulpicia”, i.e. Sulpicia was not the name of the dead woman, but of her employer or owner. In either case we’re dealing with a servant who apparently had the job of reading to her current or former owners. This person would be a rarely-attested example of a female reader, a lectrix rather than a male lector. If her name was Sulpicia she had certainly been freed, as I’ll explain, whereas if she was “of/belonging to Sulpicia” she might still be a slave; in the latter case, too, the identity of Sulpicia would offer scope for speculation.
I had not heard of this inscription before yesterday, but it struck me as obvious on reading it that the subject of the epitaph was Sulpicia Petale the lectrix, and that there was no other Sulpicia directly relevant to this inscription: it really wasn’t ambiguous. The key was the second line, quoi seruile datum nomen erat Petale, “to whom the slave name Petale had been given”. Why would the inscription specify the subject’s “slave name”, rather than simply recording her name as Petale, unless she was no longer a slave? And if, as it seems, she had been freed, why wouldn’t her freed name be given? Manumitted slaves assumed the name of their former masters: Tiro, freed by M. Tullius Cicero, became M. Tullius Tiro. If Petale had belonged to Cicero and then been freed, she would have become Tullia Petale. Our Petale belonged to a family of Sulpicii, hence when freed became Sulpicia Petale. What the first couplet of this epitaph is doing, then, is naming the dead person, albeit in a more elaborate fashion than usual. “These are the remains of Sulpicia, whose name when a slave was Petale.” Her respectable name leads; her older, slave name is consigned to the end of the couplet. It’s very elegant composition, and that can’t be said of everything in this poem.
I really can’t think of any other way of understanding the second line, and I find the popularity of the idea that there’s ambiguity here quite hard to fathom. For that matter, an epitaph beginning not with the name of the person honoured but their employer or owner seems awkward even in a Roman context, and taking Sulpiciae as governed by lectricis and unrelated to cineres feels like a very unnatural way of reading the Latin. Nevertheless this is a reading found in all the recent discussions of the inscription that I’ve seen, and it originated with no less an eminence than Jérôme Carcopino, who introduced the newly-found inscription to the Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France in 1928: “De Sulpicia la lectrice (ou: De la lectrice de Sulpicia?)” is the translation he offered of Sulpiciae … lectricis.
Carcopino’s interest in this inscription, as expressed in his presentation to the Société, explicitly consists in the possibility that it offers a connection to the most celebrated bearer of the name Sulpicia. This Sulpicia was a poet some of whose compositions (which poems in particular is fiercely debated) are included in the third book of Tibullus’ elegies: she is in fact the only female poet in Latin whose poetry survives from antiquity (Carcopino speculates that this epitaph is another one of her poems), and in the past this has drawn to her an interesting kind of attention. Mathilde Skoie’s book in the bibliography is a brilliant study of the reception of Sulpicia from the Renaissance onwards, responses she sees as united by a determination “to write scandal out of the text”, a refusal to acknowledge the truly scandalous force of a woman speaking of sexual desire in the context of a culture as male-dominated as Rome (cf. Stevenson 36). Carcopino doesn’t escape this style of patronising chivalry himself, speculating that Petale’s name, which suggests Greek petalon, a leaf, bears a resemblance to the name of Sulpicia’s lover in her elegies, Cerinthus, from kerinthon, honeywort, “as if, in the house of Sulpicia, all the names she gave had to breathe a perfume similarly mingled with flowers and Hellenism.” Hmm, though, to be fair, he does also study the language of the epitaph, concluding that it could be dated to late Republic/early Empire–Sulpicia the elegist’s time, in other words.
If seems clear enough that nobody would have paid much attention to this inscription if it hadn’t featured the name Sulpicia. But I think I’d go further and say that it’s this wish to find Sulpicia the poet in the epitaph that also explains the peculiar determination, in the face of fairly obvious objections, to find its opening ambiguous. Some kind of connection to the poet is not entirely precluded if we read “Sulpicia the lectrix” (she belonged to, and was freed by, people bearing the name Sulpicius), but it’s much more tenuous. If it were “the lectrix of Sulpicia”, on the other hand, there would be someone other than the dead woman identified as Sulpicia, and this Sulpicia would be someone who enjoyed having literature read to her.
Well, my concern in all this is really just a question of interpretation: I can’t make the Latin say what Carcopino and many others want it to be able to say. Not everything in this epitaph is crystal-clear, but the first couplet is: the dead woman was a Sulpicia with the slave name Petale, Sulpicia Petale. But there is another dimension to all this. Sulpicia the poet, while a truly remarkable individual, was the aristocratic daughter of Servius Sulpicius Rufus, renowned jurist and correspondent of Cicero, and niece of M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus, one of the most prominent figures in Augustan Rome, both in poetry and politics.
Sulpicia Petale had by sheer ability escaped slavery and earned the immortality represented by this versified inscription. Well, maybe that’s me being as sentimental as Carcopino, but I can’t help feeling that Sulpicia Petale, the real subject of this epitaph, is where we should be directing our attention.
M. J. Carcopino, “Épitaphe en vers de la lectrice Petale”, Bulletin de la Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France 1929, 84–6;
P. Hallett, “Absent Roman Fathers in the writings of their daughters: Cornelia and Sulpicia”, in S. Huebner and D. M. Ratzan (eds.), Growing Up Fatherless in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2009), 175-91, at 187-90;
P. Hallett, “Ovid’s Thisbe and a Roman Woman Love Poet”, in B.W. Boyd and C. Fox (eds.), Approaches to Teaching World Literature: Ovid and Ovidianism (New York, 2010), 414-433, at 367-370;
P. Hallett, “Scenarios of Sulpiciae: moral discourses and immoral verses”, EuGeStA 1 (2011);
E. Hauser, “Optima tu proprii nominis auctor: The semantics of female authorship in ancient Rome, from Sulpicia to Proba”, EuGeStA 6 (2016);
M. Skoie, Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475-1990 (Oxford, 2002);
J. Stevenson, Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2005), (on this inscription) 42-44.
Fifty years ago today I got as close as I’ve ever got to a truly historical event, so it justifies a post. It would count as a reminiscence if I could remember anything about something that happened when I was a bit less than two-months old.
I was with my family, six of us in total, and we were sleeping in an Ace Ambassador caravan in a lay-by in Bulgaria. To understand how we had ended up in this unlikely situation you need to know two things about my father: first, that in his view a holiday was not a holiday unless it involved driving a couple of thousand miles each way (with a caravan attached), and secondly, that he refused point-blank to pay any money for camping sites, toll roads, etc. Apparently this caused less of a problem in the Eastern Bloc than one might imagine, and I can only think that a family of Western caravanners was so spectacularly out of the ordinary anyhow that we could get away with quite a lot.
By the time I was conscious of these holidays, a little after the event I’m talking about here, the destinations had become slightly more mainstream. Greece and Turkey were still a heck of a long way to drive, but didn’t involve crossing the Iron Curtain, unless you count Yugoslavia. Before I was born, though, and for a short time afterwards, my father indulged a fascination for communist Eastern Europe, visiting Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania as well as Bulgaria. He had no political sympathy with communism, though he was a (minor) politician, and that might explain the welcome we got in parts of Romania (which had interesting differences with the rest of the Warsaw Pact), especially. I have only one memory of Eastern-Bloc countries, a plague of beetles covering the car one year on the border between Hungary and Bulgaria.
Most aspects of what I’ve been describing now strike me as pretty insane: the huge distances towing a caravan (we had an average of three punctures per holiday), the massive catering operation undertaken by my mother without any help whatsoever from my father, and of course all the time spent touring around the Eastern Bloc. It seems especially foolhardy to me, though I recognise I may be biased, to take a very small baby to a place where, for example, baby food could be quite hard to find. But the holidays I remember were simply amazing. Until the age of 14 I hadn’t spent a single day of the month of August in the U.K., but I’d visited far more historical sites than I’ve ever seen since, and we saw Turkey, in particular, before its tourist industry took off: Gordion, Side, Goreme, Didyma… Since this was before the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we were often travelling the same route as long-distance lorry drivers (a nice blog about that culture here), and hippies on the overland route. Again, I can’t imagine how a middle-class family in a 14-foot caravan towed by a Volvo looked to them, but we all seemed to get along swimmingly.
But back to that lay-by in Bulgaria. It was nighttime, and we were sleeping, but our sleep on this occasion was interrupted by a terrific noise from the road, the sound of a huge line of very heavy traffic. My father went out to investigate, I think; at any rate the traffic was quickly identified as a line of military vehicles, and it took most of the night to pass our camping place. We must have assumed that we had stumbled into a military exercise, and the next day we continued on our way, into Yugoslavia and up towards Maribor, now in Slovenia, the border town for the crossing into Austria. It was only here that we discovered what had been rolling past us that night in Bulgaria. The night in question was August 20-21, 1968. The military convoy had been heading for Prague, one component of the massive Warsaw Pact forces converging on Czechoslovakia in a surprise invasion. There in our caravan we were the most unlikely witnesses to the suppression of the Prague Spring.
‘Prague Spring’ was the name given to the period of liberalization introduced by the Czechoslovak leader, Alexander Dubček, which he himself famously described as ‘socialism with a human face’. In April 1968 Dubcek had relaxed restrictions on free speech and movement, and on the press; a greater role for market economics was envisaged, and in the longer term democratic elections. In August the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev sent Warsaw Pact forces in to suppress the “counterrevolution”: what we had seen from our caravan was part of the Bulgarian contribution, a fraction of the 200,000 or so troops and 2,000 tanks that entered the country that night. There was some popular resistance — most tragically, a student named Jan Palach burned himself to death in Wenceslaus Square in Prague in January 1969 — but Dubček’s reforms were reversed, liberals were purged from government, and Czechoslovakia would not experience the same freedom until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In the meantime some 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled to the West.
The border between Yugoslavia and Austria presented a dramatic contrast at the best of times, shabby and impoverished towns on the eastern side, prosperous in Austria, like going from black-and-white to colour. But when we reached the border in Maribor in 1968 we encountered something altogether more distressing, a huge gathering of Czechs trying to decide whether to cross into Austria or return to their now occupied country. One effect of the liberalization of Czechoslovakia had been to allow its citizens greater freedom of travel abroad, and Yugoslavia had been a popular destination. Now these tourists were in a state of shock, and faced a terrible quandary. My older sister remembers a woman trying to decide whether to flee to the West or return to her children in Czechoslovakia. My mother felt a compulsion to apologise to the Czechs she met for what she saw as the failure of her country to come to their help twice in one generation, in 1938 and 1968.
In 1989 I visited Prague itself, but missed the moment on that occasion after a stupid argument with my travelling companions about using foreign-currency shops. I left Prague in a huff. The next day, December 10, a government was formed which for the first time contained a majority of non-communist members. A huge, joyful crowd filled Wenceslaus Square; meanwhile I was on a train back to Berlin.
Any blogs from me will be short and sweet this summer, my writing schedule being what it is, and highly likely to be about Ovid for the same reason.
For this one, two assumptions are required: first, that Ovid is so very self-aware a poet that his narrative might at any moment enact his literary principles; and secondly that the metre of poetry in antiquity, and in Rome specifically, was meaningful in its own right.
I’m here concerned with the Metamorphoses, unusual among Ovid’s works for being composed in the dactylic hexameter, stereotypically the metre of epic, the highest form of poetry. The hexameter was known as the herous or ἡρωικός, the “heroic” metre, its very name implying it was intrinsically suited to tell the deeds of great men: I discussed an ancient response to the hexameter and its ethos, the sotadean metre, in another blog here. The Metamorphoses is ostensibly a heroic epic, as its metre and length and cast of heroes imply, but Ovid is throughout this poem superbly disrespectful of the sublime values an epic was supposed to embody.
Ovid’s inappropriate approach to writing epic has been noted, and deplored, ever since he wrote it, and a recurrent theme of the criticism of ancient figures like the Senecas Elder and Younger and Quintilian and more modern critics like John Dryden, as an article of mine argued many moons ago,* was that Ovid’s approach to writing epic, properly the task of a mature and serious sensibility, was mischievous–childish, to use a metaphor regularly found: Seneca the Younger chastises Ovid’s addiction to pueriles ineptiae, “childish silliness”, for example, and Dryden talks of the “boyisms” that mar the dignity of his epic poetry.
The main point of my article was to show, not just that Ovid was perfectly aware how far he was falling short of epic respectability in the Metamorphoses, but that Ovid took poetic self-awareness to an ever higher level, actually anticipating within his poem the criticisms that would be directed at it. At three points in particular, Cupid’s encounter with Apollo in Met. 1, Phaethon’s piloting of the sun chariot in Met. 2, and the famous story of Daedalus and Icarus in Met. 8, I suggested that these accounts could be read as “metaliterary drama”, vignettes programmatically encapsulating the deeper character of the poem. In each case, simply put, a heroic circumstance is disrupted by a child, Apollo transformed from the conqueror of Python into a plaintive lover, the horses of the sun careering out of control and scorching the earth under Phaethon’s inadequate control, and Daedalus’ momentous achievement of flight ruined by Icarus’ boyish refusal to obey instruction. Ovid was staging in his own narrative the childish subversion of epic values he would later himself be told off for.
It’s Icarus’ story that I want to bring back to metre. One metaliterary vignette, I’d suggest, is the scene from Met. 8 where Daedalus is meticulously constructing wings for himself and his son. Icarus does what children do, getting in the way (193-203, with the Miller Loeb translation, slightly adapted).
tum lino medias et ceris alligat imas
atque ita conpositas paruo curuamine flectit,
ut ueras imitetur aues. puer Icarus una 195
stabat et, ignarus sua se tractare pericla,
ore renidenti modo, quas uaga mouerat aura,
captabat plumas, flauam modo pollice ceram
mollibat lusuque suo mirabile patris
impediebat opus. postquam manus ultima coepto 200
inposita est, geminas opifex librauit in alas
ipse suum corpus motaque pependit in aura.
Then Daedalus ties the feathers together with twine and wax at middle and bottom;
and, thus arranged, he bends them with a gentle curve
so that they look like real birds’ wings. His son Icarus
was standing by and, little knowing that he was handling his own peril,
with smiling face now snatched at the feathers
which the shifting breeze had blown about, now moulded the yellow wax
with his thumb, and by his play hindered
his father’s wondrous task. When now the finishing touches
had been put to the work, the maestro himself balanced his body
on two wings and hung poised in the beaten air.
We all know how this story ends. What for me is typical of Ovid about this passage is how he paints a picture which is vividly true to life, the child chasing feathers and moulding the wax into shapes, but which at the same time works perfectly as a metaphor for the Metamorphoses as a whole, a poem that refuses to abide by the rules, a world where things never go for its heroic protagonists as they should. (Denis Feeney once explained to me why he liked Toy Story so much: “It’s just like the Metamorphoses: Buzz Lightyear thinks he’s a superhero, but in fact he’s just a toy.”)
But what about the metre?
Bear in mind that I’m currently thinking too much about Ovid, and I’ve been thinking too hard about metre for years. But just note how the boy Icarus enters and exits this scene, puer Icarus una… in 195 and impediebat opus in 200: in each case Icarus isn’t just disrupting Daedalus’ wondrous task, but interrupting the heroic measure, intervening halfway into the dactylic hexameter, departing halfway through.
Ovid’s intense self-consciousness undoubtedly extends to the metres he uses, we know that from elsewhere. And whether or not there is metrical self-awareness here, it is poetically effective to have Icarus butting in unexpectedly after the line has started. But I suspect that Ovid thinks of the metre of his poem, as much as any other element of it, as a conventional epic feature ripe for his mischievous attention, and wants us to appreciate it as such.
Here, I think, as heroic action is disrupted by this childish impulse, whether we call it Icarus’s or Ovid’s, so is heroic form.
*”Child’s play: Ovid and his critics,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003), 66-91.
Here is Nisbet & Hubbard on an unusual, arresting word used by Horace at Odes 2.7.8, malobathro. It’s a fascinating word in itself, as N&H explain, a borrowing from Sanskrit interestingly distorted in the process of transfer. It reminds me a bit of how we got “orange” from “naranj”.
The clever explanation of the Greek loss of ta-, as N&H say, comes from Eduard Schwyzer; meanwhile Bertold Laufer suggests that the source of μαλάβαθρον was what we call patchouli leaves, which Henry Yule in Hobson-Jobson records as being “sold in every bazar in Hindustan,” and “used as an ingredient in tobacco for smoking, as hair-scent by women, and especially for stuffing mattresses and laying among clothes as we use lavender.”
“In a fluid form,” Yule continues, “patchouli was introduced into England in 1844, and soon became very fashionable as a perfume,” especially popular on the hippie scene in the 1960s and ’70s. In Horace’s poem the malobathrum, not so differently, is a fragrant oil worn in the hair at symposia or drinking parties, and it features in Horace’s reminiscence of a scene from his younger, wilder days. In the tiny poetic forms of his lyric verse Horace selects his words very carefully indeed, and while thinking about this poem for a Natalie Haynes programme recorded last week I got to wondering what he saw in this peculiar word.
Let’s start with Odes 2.7.
The poem welcomes an old friend and comrade back to Rome after a long absence. Many years before, Horace and Pompeius had shared the experience of fighting for Marcus Brutus against the forces of Mark Antony and the future Augustus, the assassins of Julius Caesar against his heirs. After the crushing defeat of the “tyrannicides” at Philippi in 42 BC, Horace had made his peace with the victors and returned to Rome, before long finding a patron in Augustus’ right-hand man Maecenas, and enjoying the literary celebrity that followed. But Pompeius, so this poem tells us, had continued the fight against Augustus, perhaps with Sextus Pompey (to whom he may have been related) until his final defeat in 36 BC, and subsequently with Antony when he and Augustus came to conflict.
Now, finally, in middle age, Pompeius is back home, and Horace throws a party for him, or perhaps give him a party in poetic form in lieu thereof. The general scenario has parallels elsewhere in the Odes: in 3.14, for example, Horace contrasts his peaceable state of mind in a Rome ruled by Augustus with his youthful bravado at Philippi; while in 1.7, addressed to L. Munatius Plancus, founder of the city of Lyons, Horace again seems to contrast the violence of the Civil Wars with the peace and friendship represented by a drinking party. The lyric poetry that Horace is writing spends a lot of time in the symposium, but Horace lends the act of drinking with friends a greater significance: his poetic symposium, a place where Pompeius, Plancus and we the readers come together as friends, is a space where Romans can forget about their differences and rediscover what they have in common. The oblivion brought by consumption of alcohol becomes a metaphor for Rome’s rejection of past conflict. Friendship, restored after the moral chaos of civil conflict is important throughout Horace’s poetry. Here in 2.7 the last word is amico: a friendship has been restored out of the turmoil of Roman fighting Roman.
Malobathrum, patchouli, is what I’m really concerned with, though. Here’s the whole poem, with David West’s translation slightly adapted, the malobathrum at l. 8:
O saepe mecum tempus in ultimum
deducte Bruto militiae duce,
quis te redonauit Quiritem
dis patriis Italoque caelo,
Pompei, meorum prime sodalium, 5
cum quo morantem saepe diem mero
fregi, coronatus nitentis
malobathro Syrio capillos?
tecum Philippos et celerem fugam
sensi relicta non bene parmula, 10
cum fracta uirtus et minaces
turpe solum tetigere mento;
sed me per hostis Mercurius celer
denso pauentem sustulit aere,
te rursus in bellum resorbens 15
unda fretis tulit aestuosis.
ergo obligatam redde Ioui dapem
longaque fessum militia latus
depone sub lauru mea, nec
parce cadis tibi destinatis. 20
obliuioso leuia Massico
ciboria exple, funde capacibus
unguenta de conchis. quis udo
deproperare apio coronas
curatue myrto? quem Venus arbitrum 25
dicet bibendi? non ego sanius
bacchabor Edonis: recepto
dulce mihi furere est amico.
You and I have often been led to the edge
of doom with Brutus in command,
and now who has made you a Roman again
and restored to your ancestral gods and Italian sky,
O Pompeius, first of my friends, with whom
I so often broke into the lagging day with neat wine,
head garlanded and hair sleek
with Syrian malobathrum?
With you I knew Philippi and speedy flight,
leaving my little shield behind, shame to say,
when virtue snapped and the chins
of blusterers touched the base earth.
I panicked, but swift Mercury carried me off
in a dense mist through the enemy ranks,
while a wave sucked you back into war
and swept you along in a boiling sea.
So pay to Jupiter the feast that was vowed,
lay down your body weary with campaigning
here under my laurel tree, and have no mercy
on the casks of wine I have reserved for you.
Fill up the polished Egyptian cups with Massic
for forgetfulness and pour fragrant oils from full shells.
Whose business is it to run
for garlands of moist celery
and myrtle? Whom will Venus choose as master
of the wine? l shall run wild as any Edonian
at her Bacchic orgies. My friend is back.
What joy to go mad!
In the second stanza, with a few deft strokes, Horace sketches that youthful existence he led with Pompeius in Brutus’ camp, the informality of sodales, “mates”, the drinking initiated far too early in the day, garlands, Horace’s hair still full and sleek (at Epistles 1.20.23 a couple of years later, as West notes, Horace is praecanus, prematurely grey), and the indulgence of malobathrum. I think this exotic word, and the substance it denotes (“Syrian”, as Nisbet & Hubbard remark, could imply a source much further east), suggests in its own right not just a place apart, far from the “Italian sky”, but also a distant, irrecoverable time. Smells are notoriously evocative: for research purposes I have been sniffing patchouli oil, and it’s a scent that stays with you. I don’t know if the name of a scent can share any of that evocative power, but I do think that Horace, on the tiny canvases he allows himself in his lyric poetry, gets as close as any poet to making words do for us what a scent can.
Here one exotic vocabulary item, as exotic to read as to smell, vividly evokes… what? Long-distant youthful abandon, it seems to me, time out of mind.
One of the big surprises that Virgil springs on his readers as the Aeneid gets under way is to take them straight to Carthage.
This city is really the last place that a Roman epic should start, the most relentless and dangerous enemy that Rome in its long history felt it had faced: the threat of Hannibal coming to get them was a favoured Roman method for getting the kids to eat their greens, long after the city (and the threat) had been eliminated in 146BC, so deep ran the fear evoked by Rome’s greatest imperial rival.
But Virgil doesn’t just drag his Roman epic to enemy HQ, he then compounds the scandal by making a place that Romans very well knew represented all that was most despicable in human behaviour, all that was most uncivilized, most un-Roman, a really rather decent place, even — terrifyingly — a place quite reminiscent of Rome. I tell my students, though they probably don’t believe me, that what is most clearly evoked by the scene that meets Aeneas as he approaches Carthage for the first time, the busy building activity of the rising city, is Rome in the first years of Augustus’ principate, the time and place of Virgil’s writing, and Romans’ first reading, of the poem.
It is indeed a shocking way to open a Roman national epic, almost as if Virgil was out to offer his Augustan readers no kind of simple answers.
By the time Aeneas leaves Carthage, it has assumed an altogether less friendly, though also more familiar, appearance. One way of understanding the trajectory of Aeneas’ stay in Carthage is as the creation of a Carthage recognisable to Roman readers, answering to the deep prejudices they had developed about their mortal Mediterranean rival during the Punic Wars. By the end of Book 4 Dido has sworn undying enmity to Rome, conjured up Hannibal from her own ashes, and generally started to look a lot like an existential threat. What’s quite interesting here is that Aeneas shares responsibility for the creation of this monster: Carthage would not be Carthage if Aeneas hadn’t met, loved and abandoned Dido.
But another respect in which Carthage becomes recognisably Carthage by the time Aeneas leaves it is in its religious character. In a brilliant article James Davidson* argues that Dido’s suicide at the end of Book 4 is meant by Virgil to inaugurate something that the Romans associated very strongly with Carthage, something they found especially deplorable: human sacrifice.
Now, a lot of what the Romans believed about the Carthaginians, for example their sexual immorality and their Punica fides, an alleged incapacity to honour an agreement, we can dismiss as the prejudice of a warring nation for its enemy. But it is generally accepted these days that the sacrifice of humans, and especially children (apparently children of the elite), at the temple of Tanit (Virgil’s Juno) was indeed an important element of Carthaginian religious observance. The sacrifice was a means to secure the goodwill of the gods, and Diodorus Siculus (20.14.4-6) records the frenetic activity occasioned by an unexpected raid on Carthage by the Sicilian tyrant Agathocles in 310BC, a crisis (it was evident to the Carthaginians) caused by their neglect of the gods which could only, the logic went, be resolved by appeasing those gods — with the most valuable thing it was possible for them to offer, their own children or themselves. Diodorus’ account is without doubt exaggerated, but the event itself, less some of the more lurid details, is entirely plausible:
“They also alleged that Cronus [i.e. Baal] had turned against them, inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons (τῶν υἱῶν τοὺς κρατίστους), but more recently, secretly buying and raising children, they had sent these to be sacrificed; and when an investigation was made, some of those who had been sacrificed were discovered to have been supposititious. When they had considered these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honours of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.”
We have already contemplated two ways in which Virgil’s readers probably reacted to his depiction of Carthage: surprise at the friendly, principled face it presented to Aeneas on his arrival, and a familiar horror at the vengeful promise of eternal enmity voiced at his departure. But one of the most effective things Virgil does, in Book 1 especially, is to sow something else in his readers’ minds, periodically qualifying the positive impression made by Dido and her city with niggling hints of that more familiar, much more intimidating Carthage. Again Davidson picks up on these dissonant notes, and he almost says what I’m about to say, and I’m pretty sure thought it. It’s obvious enough when you think about it, but still a great example of Virgil’s ability to manipulate his readers’ responses to his story.
Someone who harbours serious concerns about the Carthaginians is Venus, Aeneas’ divine mother. At 1.643ff. Aeneas, who has by now met and been warmly welcomed by Dido, sends word to the Trojan ships for his son Ascanius to join him in Carthage, at which point Venus hatches a plan to substitute her divine son Cupid for Ascanius, and thus ensure that Dido, under Cupid’s influence, will fall in love with Aeneas and do him no harm. (Venus’ plan is not flawless.) The grounds for the goddess’s anxiety about Carthage are given at 661, quippe domum timet ambiguam Tyriosque bilinguis, “since indeed she fears the untrustworthy house and the two-tongued Tyrians.” Clearly here Venus’ concerns evoke those raw Roman prejudices about Punica fides, “Punic faith”, their congenital untrustworthiness, a jarring reminder of how Carthage really is amid the overwhelmingly positive representation of Dido and her city.
But I can’t help feeling that the swapping of Cupid for Ascanius is still a bit undermotivated, Dido perfectly capable of falling for Aeneas without Cupid’s intervention. And if we do need a bit more reason for Venus to keep the boy Ascanius well away from Carthage until she’s confident Carthage isn’t behaving like Carthage, well, perhaps the most deep-seated of all Roman misgivings about the place was what they did to children there.
As Diodorus suggests, the really valuable children were the high-born, the children of the elite; in fact only the highest-born would do. No child was more elite than Ascanius, ancestor of the Romans, and of the Julian family in particular: he is the character that represents in the Aeneid all the promise of Rome’s glorious future. Virgil intrudes, with exquisite subtlety, a reminder of what this place where Aeneas was busily making himself at home was in the habit of doing to boys of such extraordinary promise.
How terrifying a threat Carthage actually posed to Rome.
*J. Davidson, “Domesticating Dido,” in M. Burden (ed.), A woman scorn’d: responses to the Dido myth (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), 65-88.
Essential to Virgil’s Aeneid is the claim that the Trojan hero Aeneas was the direct ancestor of the ruling family of Rome, the Iulii or Julii: Augustus and his adoptive father Julius Caesar were descendants of Aeneas, and through him of the goddess Venus, Aeneas’ mother.
Virgil didn’t invent all this: it seems to have been part of Julius family self-promotion for some time. The coin at the top, an issue of Julius Caesar in about 46 BC, thirty years before the Aeneid, shows Aeneas carrying his father and the palladium (a figure of Athena that was a talisman of the city of Troy, and then of Rome) out of Troy on one side (with CAESAR making the connection crystal-clear); the profile on the other side is Venus. Politics in the late Republic was awash with candidates for office claiming to be descended from Hercules, Odysseus, one of the Roman kings, vel sim. So the Julii weren’t doing anything wildly unusual here, odd as it may seem to us.
Iulus was a key component of this claim: the son of Aeneas, also known as Ascanius, he travels with his father from Troy to Italy and features prominently in various episodes across the poem. The importance of Iulus and his name is signalled by Jupiter in Book 1, when he explains to a troubled Venus that Ascanius would now also be known as Iulus (Aen. 1.267-8), and that a member of the Julian family, its name derived from Iulus, would in time come to rule the world (Aen. 1.286-8).
Now, Virgil had Julian family lore to draw on, as I say, but that didn’t make it plain sailing. Some very interesting scholarship has been done recently by Sergio Casali* and Alessandro Barchiesi†, drawing out how tendentious Virgil’s claims about Augustus’s ancestry were even in a Roman context. Virgil’s most authoritative sources and predecessors for the story of Aeneas, Q. Ennius and Cato the Elder, had both rejected any connection between the Julii and Ascanius/Iulus: Ennius in his epic poem Annales (the great predecessor of the Aeneid) denied that Aeneas had had any male children (Casali pp. 104-106), while Cato in his Origines, the first work of historiography written in Latin, stated that Iulus had died childless (Servius at Aen. 6.760 = Cato fr. 8; Barchiesi pp. 6-7). Cato’s version of events may have been a conscious contradiction of Julian family propaganda. In either case, at any rate, influential accounts of the prehistory of Rome did not say what Virgil needed them to say, and a lot depended on Virgil’s ability to convince his readers of his alternative version of things (to make them believe in Iulus, essentially.)
Lucretius offers an interesting perspective on the challenges facing Virgil in forging a heroic ancestry for the Emperor. De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ explanation of Epicurean philosophy in epic form (which made him Virgil’s most important recent predecessor), is addressed to Memmius, most probably C. Memmius, a prominent Roman politician with apparent Epicurean sympathies. Lucretius starts his poem with a hymn to Venus, asking her for inspiration, and in the process says complimentary things about Memmius. In a way Venus, Memmius and Lucretius will all be collaborators in the creation of the De Rerum Natura: the goddess is asked to be Lucretius’ “partner in writing the verses/ that I am attempting to compose on the nature of things (de rerum natura) for my friend of the Memmian family, whom you, goddess, have willed at all times to excel, endowed with all gifts” (te sociam studeo scribendis versibus esse,/ quos ego de rerum natura pangere conor/ Memmiadae nostro, quem tu, dea, tempore in omni/ omnibus ornatum voluisti excellere rebus, 1.24-7).
In fact Lucretius’ address to Venus suits his addressee as much as the poet, and the choice of deity is no doubt partly to be explained that way: the Memmii, like the Julii, had a family myth that they were descended from Venus, and that they were Troiugenae, of Trojan ancestry (the Roman equivalent of an ancestor on the Mayflower). The evidence for the Memmian claim about Venus is partly the emphasis on the goddess in coinage minted by members of the Memmius family (this is an example from the 80s BC), and partly here in Lucretius. Stefan Weinstock‡ further suggests (p. 23) that what Lucretius says about Venus’ special concern for Memmius, the aura she lends her favourite, is rather like things said about the favour shown by her to Julius Caesar (Dio 43.43.3; Suetonius, Julius Caesar 49.3; Velleius 2.41.1).
As for the Trojan origin of the Memmii, the first line of De Rerum Natura (to which we’ll come momentarily) and a detail in Aeneid 5 (relevant later) make that perfectly clear. But if C. Memmius played up a Trojan connection it also gives extra point to a jibe aimed at him by Cicero (Ad Att. 1.18.3): recounting gossip about Memmius’ adulterous behaviour, Cicero dubs him “our Roman Paris” (noster Paris), preying on the wife of “Menelaus” (M. Lucullus), and because this Paris is even worse than his Trojan counterpart also on the wife of “Agamemnon” (L. Lucullus, M.’s brother). All in all, it does rather look as if the Julii and the Memmii were promoting their claims to political advancement in pretty similar ways.
The opening line of the De Rerum Natura, addressed to Venus, draws Memmius and Julius Caesar especially closely together: Aeneadum genetrix, hominum diuumque uoluptas, “Mother of the descendants of Aeneas, pleasure of men and gods.” It’s a fantastic way to start, defining the goddess simultaneously in Roman and Epicurean terms: she is the ancestor of the Romans (the descendants of Aeneas) in the first half of the line, and she embodies the fundamental Epicurean principle of uoluptas, pleasure, in the second half. Lucretius’ first verse thus encapsulates the whole project of his poem, to take Rome and make it Epicurean.
But in the unusual word Lucretius selects for the Romans, Aeneadae, “descendants of Aeneas,” there’s a further implication, it seems to me. As already suggested, the evocation of Venus is inseparable from the dedicatee of the poem, C. Memmius, who claimed descent from the goddess. But what is to prevent us thinking that Memmius didn’t only share with Julius Caesar the claim of descent from Venus but also, more specifically, the descent from Venus’ son, Aeneas himself? We’ve already seen, after all, how hard Virgil had to work (through Ascanius/Iulus) to establish a unique line from Aeneas to Julius Caesar and Augustus. Given that we know the Memmii claimed Venus as an ancestor, and claimed to have originated in Troy, Aeneas would be an obvious hook to hang it all on. Certainly the very first word of the De Rerum Natura comes into clearer focus if Memmius considered himself an Aeneades, “descendant of Aeneas.”
So did C. Memmius actually claim Aeneas as an ancestor? Could Virgil, if Roman history had taken a slightly different turn, have written an Aeneid in honour of Memmius?
The Memmii do actually feature in the Aeneid, and this might help us see what Virgil does with the awkward fact, always assuming I’m on the right track so far, that the Memmii were basically making the same claims about their glorious ancestry as the Julii were. In Book 5 the contestants in the boat race during Anchises’ funeral games are identified as ancestors of Roman families: Sergestus the forebear of the Sergii, Cloanthus of the Cluentii (Servius ad loc. adds Gyas of the Geganii), and Mnestheus, genus a quo nomine Memmi (117), “from which name comes the race of Memmius.”
So the Memmii do have a Trojan ancestor, according to Virgil, but it’s Mnestheus, not Aeneas. Who is this Mnestheus? As Weinstock explains (p. 23), his name is related to “Memmius” rather cleverly, Mnestheus suggesting Greek μνήμων (mnemon, “mindful”) and Memmius the Latin equivalent memor. In the Aeneid Mnestheus is a significant character, one of the most prominent Trojans after Aeneas himself, and (as Barney Taylor points out to me) he’s Aeneas’ cousin: both of them are descended from Assaracus (Aen. 12.127; Ennius frs, 28-9 Skutsch; Aen. 1.284). But the other thing to say about Mnestheus is that there’s not much sign of him before Virgil. There’s a Menestheus in the Iliad (leader of the Athenians, 2.552), but that’s all. It follows, of course, that the idea that the Memmii were descended from a Trojan hero called Mnestheus is, for us at least, first attested in Virgil.
It’s all very intriguing. Mnestheus is really as close to Aeneas as he can be, almost interchangeable with him, you might say. The question I’m asking myself, obviously, is whether he’s Virgil’s invention, necessary to ensure that the pure ancestry back to Aeneas belongs exclusively to the Julii, and to Augustus. Invented Trojans are not thin on the ground in the Aeneid: in fact very few of Aeneas’ companions were characters already in Homer or other accounts of the Trojan War. But it’s a slightly different state of affairs when so much depends on the status of an individual: it matters a lot, for example, that Aeneas had already featured in the Iliad, providing that indisputable continuity from Troy to Rome.
If the Mnestheus/Memmius link was indeed concocted by Virgil, it illustrates two things at least about the Aeneid. One is the delicate balance that Virgil needed to maintain between celebrating the emperor Augustus and not ruffling the feathers of the wider elite on whose goodwill Augustus’ settlement depended: the Memmii are still done great honour in this poem, given ancestry in Troy, in an impressive warrior named Mnestheus. But they don’t get a piece of Aeneas. The other thing it illustrates, though, is the power of a story told with sufficient confidence to shape important details of national ideology. Virgil may have got Iulus from Julian family lore, but if he did indeed conjure Mnestheus up out of thin air, he has convinced us by sheer narrative bravado not just of the existence of a Trojan hero called Mnestheus but also that the claim of the Julii to descent from Aeneas is the only valid one.
An absolutely fascinating wrinkle to end with, though. In Ephesus Austrian archaeologists found the remains of an impressive monument, maybe funerary, for C. Memmius’ son, also C. Memmius (some images and description here). Mario Torelli has written a brilliant, if speculative, article⸸ on this building, arguing from reliefs of potentially heroic figures which perhaps decorated its third level, and from a fragment of a Greek inscription with the genitive of a name ending “–stheus” which originates somewhere on it, that one of the functions of the monument was to celebrate the younger C. Memmius’ descent from (Mne)stheus.
Theories about the date of this monument range from the early to the late Augustan period, the 30s BC to the first decade AD, but Torelli wants to place it much earlier, in the late 50s or early 40s BC, a full generation before the Aeneid. That wouldn’t suit me very well, but I think it’s fair to say that the date of the Memmius Monument is really anyone’s guess. The idea that Mnestheus might be depicted on it is incredibly appealing, though: if we could assume a date later than the Aeneid, it might make my point about the power of Virgil’s fiction rather well if C. Memmius junior had adopted an ancestry formulated in the Aeneid.
We somehow have to square Aeneadum and –σθέως, I suppose, but there’s every chance I’m barking up the wrong tree.
* S. Casali, “Killing the father: Ennius, Naevius and Virgil’s Julian imperialism,” in W. Fitzgerald & E. Gowers (eds.), Ennius perennis: the Annals and beyond (Cambridge, 2007), 103-128;
† A. Barchiesi, “Jupiter the antiquarian: the name of Iulus (Virgil, Aeneid 1.267-8),” in R. Hunter & S. P. Oakley, Latin literature and its transmission (Cambridge, 2016), 1-9;
‡ S. Weinstock, Divus Julius (Oxford, 1971);
⸸ M. Torelli, “Il monumento efesino di Memmio. Un capolavoro dell’ideologia nobiliare della fine della repubblica,” Scienze dell’Antichità 2 (1988), 403-426 = M. Torelli, Il rango, il rito e l’immagine (Milan, 1997), 152-74.
I may, with a bit of luck, be in the process of arranging to write a Very Short Introduction to Ovid, and I’ve been thinking hard about the structure of a book that has to encapsulate a lot of texts, and the most scintillating of authors, in a “very short” format. In particular, how to capture Ovid’s afterlife, the huge impact he has had on more recent literature and art, is a poser. I’m pondering at this stage a chronological approach, the “aetas Ovidiana” of the 12th and 13th Century followed by the Renaissance followed by modernity, perhaps. But I still need to decide how to do all that in just a few thousand words.
Well, here’s an Ovidian motif with a medieval afterlife, in one case surprising and hard to explain; while in the other, I think, Ovid meets his medieval match. Amores 2.4 sees Ovid deploring his own mendosi mores, his reprehensible character and lifestyle: there is no woman in Rome he doesn’t fancy, as he explains at some length and in some detail: nam desunt vires ad me mihi iusque regendum;/auferor ut rapida concita puppis aqua./non est certa meos quae forma invitet amores—/centum sunt causae, cur ego semper amem (7-10), “I haven’t the strength or will to control myself;/ I am swept away like a ship driven by fast-moving water./ There is no particular beauty that provokes my love:/ I have a hundred reasons to be constantly in love!”
One such irresistible reason, at 31-2, is a woman who dances seductively: ut taceam de me, qui causa tangor ab omni,/illic Hippolytum pone, Priapus erit! “To say nothing of me, as I am affected by everything,/ put Hippolytus in my place and he’ll turn into Priapus!”
It is a very naughty, very brilliant example of the wit that Ovid is famous for; not perhaps easily defensible in the current day and age. Hippolytus is the archetype of sexual self-restraint, as seen in Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus and various Phaedras; while Priapus looks like this:
Priapus was a kind of over-sexed scarecrow, associated with gardens and orchards: his physical appearance represented an implicit threat to anyone rash enough to try to steal the fruit he protected.
This makes what follows odd, to say the least. In around the thirteenth century someone in Constantinople translated Ovid’s erotic poems, the Amores, Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris, into Greek. The translator may well have been the most famous Byzantine translator of Latin poetry, Maximus Planudes, monk and humanist, best known for his anthology of Greek epigrams: Planudes’ translation activities tend to be associated with the movement to unite the eastern and western Churches, itself related to the hope that help might be forthcoming from the Christian West to defend the city against the Muslim Turks. We do not any longer have that original Greek translation, but we do have excerpts from it in a kind of commonplace book containing morally improving excerpts from a range of ancient authors. The notion of Ovid as morally improving would strike the emperor Augustus as odd, for starters, but the excerptor does generally, sometimes by quite extreme means, manage to keep it clean. Amor, “love”, is translated as τόδε τὸ πρᾶγμα, “this topic”, the puella, the target of sexual interest, becomes an inoffensive φίλος, “(male) friend,” and oscula ferre, “kiss,” turns into προσειπεῖν, “talk to.” E. J. Kenney, to whose article (“A Byzantine version of Ovid,” Hermes 91 (1963), 213-27) I owe these examples, comments: “always at the elbow of this medieval Podsnap [the excerptor] was the spectre of the Young Person. Just as his brethren of the West allegorised Ovid to make him respectable, so this Greek monk, as he must have been, proceeded to purge Ovid of his regrettable lasciviousness by drastic methods” (225).
Sometimes, though, it appears that the excerptor-monk lost concentration, and Amores 2.4.32 is a case in point: most unexpectedly, we find illic Hippolytum pone, Priapus erit literally translated into Greek for the edification of those Byzantine schoolboys: ἐκεῖσε θὲς τὸν Ἱππόλυτον, καὶ Πρίαπος ἔσται. A shocking dereliction on the part of the monk in question, as I hardly need to emphasise.
Over in Western Europe there were indeed comparable efforts to make Ovid respectable, often involving the allegorizing of the myths of the Metamorphoses. But another approach was taken by the Archpoet (Archipoeta in Latin), an anonymous poet whose pseudonym was apparently derived from his patron, Rainald of Dassel, both Archbishop of Cologne and Archchancellor of Italy. The Archpoet’s masterpiece, his “Confession”, is perhaps the most famous of medieval Latin lyrics, and it’s directly inspired by Ovid, Amores 2.4.
The poem can be dated to 1162 or more likely late 1163, when Rainald, a close adviser of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa as well as a promoter of classical learning, spent time in the north Italian city of Pavia during an embassy to the Pope: Pavia, as we shall see, is where the Archpoet implies that he is delivering his confession. Picking up on Ovid’s word confiteor (3), “I confess,” a word that Christianity had vastly enriched in meaning, the Archpoet delivers a textbook Christian confession: “confession, contrition, purpose of amendment, imposition of penance, and absolution” (Walsh, Thirty poems from the Carmina Burana, 67; cf. H. Watenphul/H. Krefeld, Die Gedichte des Archipoeta, 139). Everything has changed in Latin poetry: the lines are short and rhymed, the rhythms simplified and accentual, the Old and New Testaments compete with Ovid as the target of allusion. Yet somehow, at least for as long as the Archpoet is confessing his sins, the essence of Ovid has been successfully transplanted to the Holy Roman Empire (2-3):
Cum sit enim proprium viro sapienti
supra petram ponere sedem fundamenti,
stultus ego comparor fluvio labenti
sub eodem aere nunquam permanenti.
Feror ego veluti sine nauta navis,
ut per vias aeris vaga fertur avis.
non me tenent vincula, non me tenet clavis,
quero mei similes et adiungor pravis.
For though it be proper for a wise man
To set his foundations upon a rock,
I in my idiocy am like a flowing river
Never staying still under the same sky.
I am borne along like a sailor without a ship
As a wandering bird is carried through the paths of the air.
Chains do not hold me, nor a key:
I seek like-minded people, and my friends are the depraved.
There are striking parallels between the classical and medieval poet: both are manipulating some well-established and highly artificial poetic conventions, the goliardic persona of the morally wayward vagabond in the Archpoet’s case, and the morally dubious elegiac lover in Ovid’s; important to both also is a claim to youth, and the irresponsibility stereotypically associated with it. In addition, each poet is deploying a verse form that embodies their assumed persona, the trochaic Vagantenstrophe or goliardic measure in the Confession, and the elegiac couplet in Ovid’s Amores.
But it’s Hippolytus we are concerned with, and the Archpoet’s answer to Ovid’s Hippolytus/Priapus witticism brilliantly exploits the city in which he finds himself. Pavia had a dubious reputation, according to a proverb quoted by Landulf of Milan in his Historia Mediolanensis (3.1): Mediolanum in clericis, Papia in deliciis, Roma in aedificiis, Ravenna in ecclesiis, “Milan for clerics, Pavia for pleasures, Rome for buildings, Ravenna for churches.” Or as the Archpoet puts it (8-9),
Quis in igne positus igne non uratur?
quis Papie demorans castus habeatur,
ubi Venus digito iuvenes venatur,
oculis illaqueat, facie predatur?
Si ponas Ypolitum hodie Papie,
non erit Ypolitus in sequenti die:
Veneris in thalamos ducunt omnes vie;
non est in tot turribus turris Alethie.
Who when placed in the fire is not burned?
Who spending time in Pavia may be considered chaste
where Venus hunts young men with her finger,
traps them with her eyes, ensnaring them with her face?
Place Hippolytus in Pavia today,
He won’t be Hippolytus tomorrow:
all roads lead to the bedchambers of Venus;
Amongs all those towers there is no tower of Truth.
(Pavia was famous, as S. Gimignano is today, for its towers.)
An unfortunate colleague of mine met me on the airport bus over the summer. I was off to Cartagena for a jolly, and he to Pavia to give a paper. When I did what I felt compelled to do and warned him of the threat to his immortal soul posed by that city, he told me I was the second Classicist in a week to quote the Archpoet’s couplet at him when he mentioned where he was going.
But how could I resist? In Si ponas Ypolitum hodie Papie/ non erit Ypolitus in sequenti die the Archpoet fulfilled his boast at 18.4: Nasonem post calicem carmine preibo, “After a glass I shall surpass Naso in song.” But he surpasses Ovid in a more profound sense too, perhaps. Some scholars doubt the genuineness of the contrition that the poet-persona claims to feel at the end of this confession, feeling that his vices have been recounted with too much gusto for us really to accept that (23) iam virtutes diligo, vitiis irascor,/ renovatus animo spritu renascor;/ quasi modo genitus novo lacte pascor,/ ne sit meum amplius vanitatis vas cor, “Now I love virtues and loathe vices,/ renewed in the mind I am reborn in the spirit;/ like a new-born I feed on fresh milk:/ may my heart no longer be a vessel of vanity.” “The main body of the Confession is more of a defense than a confession,” suggests S. Shurtleff. But I suppose it seems to me that one cannot adequately repent one’s sins without first fully acknowledging them; and anyway that’s to take the exercise a bit too literally. Certainly, as the poet promises to reform, classical allusion gives way to scriptural. The Latin model is displaced by the biblical.
Are we focusing too much on the Ovidian sins the Archpoet admits to, then, and too little on his remorse? Is this in fact the most important respect in which the Archpoet has improved on Ovid, by capping the unresolved immorality of the pagan Roman with the Christian promise of redemption?
Some things I’ve been reading:
P. G. Walsh, Thirty poems from the Carmina Burana (1976);
H. Watenphul/H. Krefeld, Die Gedichte des Archipoeta (1958);
E. J. Kenney, “A Byzantine version of Ovid,” Hermes 91 (1963), 213-27;
P. Godman, The Archpoet and Medieval Culture (2014);
K. Langosch, Die Lieder des Archipoeta (1965);
F. Adcock, Hugh Primas and the Archpoet (1994), with an introduction by P. Dronke;
P. Dronke, “The Archpoet and the Classics,” in P. Dronke, Sources of Inspiration (1997), 83-99;
J. Hamacher, “Die ‘Vagantenbeichte’ und ihre Quellen,” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 18 (1983), 160-7;
S. B. Kugeas, “Maximos Planudes und Juvenal,” Philologus 73 (1914), 318-319;
J. Herrin, Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire (2007);
S. Shurtleff, “The Archpoet as poet, persona and self: the problem of individuality in the Confession,” Philological Quarterly 73 (1994), 373-84.
Way back last October I was helping Mary Beard and Peter Stothard introduce Virgil’s 9th Eclogue at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, gamely claiming that it was the best poem ever written. I’d still insist it was one of the very best Latin poems ever written, at least, up there with Odes 3.29.
What makes Eclogue 9 so great, to my mind (and in a couple of sentences), is that it takes the conventions of pastoral poetry and essentially shreds them. Pastoral (also known as bucolic) is a peculiar but very resilient genre of poetry. It describes a world populated by idealized herdsmen, living a carefree life in a sympathetic landscape. The Eclogues start off in typical fashion (1.1-3): “You, Tityrus, lie beneath the canopy of a spreading beech,/ and practice your woodland music on slender pipe.” The shade from the midday sun, and especially the song that we are told that Tityrus is singing about his lover Amaryllis, are classic pastoral motifs. But if I give you the whole of the first five lines of Eclogue 1, the nature of Virgil’s project is clearer:
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
siluestrem tenui Musam meditaris auena;
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arua.
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
You, Tityrus, lie beneath the canopy of a spreading beech,
and practice your woodland music on slender pipe;
I am leaving my country’s boundaries and sweet fields.
I am an outcast from my country; you, Tityrus, at ease in the shade
teach the woods to echo “beautiful Amaryllis.”
It is characteristic of Virgil’s pastoral poetry that the blissful scene around Tityrus is set against the dire circumstances affecting the herdsman addressing him, Meliboeus, who has been expelled from his land. This sharpens the appeal of the pastoral dream, but it also betrays its fundamental fragility.
In Eclogue 9 two herdsmen are experiencing the same as Meliboeus in Eclogue 1. Moeris and Lycidas, the latter a younger man, wander through a shattered landscape, dispossessed of their land and unable to do any of the things pastoral characters are supposed to do: they cannot stop, cannot recline under a shady tree, and above all cannot sing. Indeed they cannot any longer remember the songs that they used to sing. In Eclogue 1 and 9, furthermore, the destruction of the pastoral world is associated by Virgil with contemporary events in Italy, especially the land confiscations (to resettle the demobilized troops) that followed the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. These pastoral poems are thus in some respects spectacularly artificial compositions (a lot of the impact of Eclogue 9 derives from its systematic reversal of one poem in particular, the 7th Idyll of the Greek poet Theocritus, his great predecessor in pastoral poetry, for example), but they also offer an urgent commentary on some of the darkest days in Rome’s history, the chaos that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44, in middle of which Virgil was composing these exquisite pastoral poems.
My main job at Cheltenham is to do some close reading: literally reading chunks of the poem out loud in Latin, but also drawing out what I think is most important about the detailed composition of the poetry. Preparing for this–and that includes working out with Mary and Peter what to emphasise (the event is only an hour long)–is excellent discipline: I always end up seeing much more even in very familiar poems than I had before. Occasionally enough to dash off a blog about it…
This time I came away thinking about prosody. Prosody is closely related to metre, in which readers of this blog will know I have a passing interest (here, here, and here, for example). Specifically, prosody concerns how the words of poetry are set in their metrical scheme: what kinds of word are allowed where, what pauses there should be in a line, etc.
One example of a prosodical issue in Eclogue 9 is the “bucolic diaeresis”, a habit of introducing a pause between sense units after the fourth foot of the (six-foot) hexameter line. It doesn’t sound too significant, but it was common in Theocritus’ pastoral poetry and, while less regular in the Eclogues, Virgil seems to reserve it for moments when he wants to evoke a pastoral atmosphere especially strongly: the “bucolic diaeresis” retains its bucolic associations, in other words.
At Eclogue 9.51-4, for instance, Moeris complains that he can’t remember songs any more:
omnia fert aetas, animum quoque; saepe ego longos
cantando puerum memini me condere soles:
nunc oblita mihi tot carmina…
Time takes everything away, the memory too; often I remember
as a boy putting the long days to rest with singing:
now I have forgotten so many songs…
There’s a reminiscence here of a celebrated poem by another Greek poet, Callimachus (translated by Cory), but what interests me is how, as Moeris recalls the days when pastoral was pastoral, when all day could be spent in carefree song, he introduces a “bucolic diaeresis”, the strong sense break between quoque and saepe. The prosody is evoking that long-lost pastoral past in its own right.
Sticking with the “bucolic diaeresis” for a moment, toward the end of the poem Lycidas makes a final desperate effort to persuade Moeris to stop and sing, in other words to recover the pastoral fantasy (9.59-62):
hinc adeo media est nobis uia; namque sepulcrum
incipit apparere Bianoris. hic, ubi densas
agricolae stringunt frondis, hic, Moeri, canamus:
hic haedos depone, tamen ueniemus in urbem.
From here on there is half our journey to go; look, the tomb
of Bianor is coming into sight. Here, where the farmers
are stripping the thick foliage, here, Moeris, let us sing:
put the kids down here; we will reach the City all the same.
Again, Lycidas’ pleas gain extra force by an intensification of the pastoral ambience. The first two lines imitate Theocritus Idyll 7 very closely, but each also has a strong “bucolic diaeresis”, uia || namque and Bianoris || hic. Lycidas is refusing to give up hope, and his prosody reflects that.
Moeris, the disillusioned older man, will have none of it. The poem ends with an abrupt couplet expressing his adamant refusal to sing (66-7):
desine plura, puer, et quod nunc instat agamus.
carmina tum melius, cum uenerit ipse, canemus.
Say no more, boy, and let’s get on with the matter at hand.
We shall sing songs better when the master comes.
(“The master” refers to Menalcas, a poet-figure whose absence from the scene earlier in the poem is a symptom of the disruption in the countryside. His return is a faint hope, one presumes.)
I’m going to focus on another detail of prosody here. In desine plura, puer Virgil does something naughty, introducing a syllable quantity that is strictly illegal. The seven syllables of the phrase should follow the pattern long-short-short long-short-short long, but the -er of puer, “boy,” is a short syllable. Now the rule that Virgil is breaking here is not an absolutely hard-and-fast one, but this is still a very rare license, only occurring when it does in the first syllable of a metrical foot, and normally only (as here) before the main caesura (a conventional pause) of a verse. Virgil will have been aware of similar moments in Homer’s hexameters and in other Greek poets, and sometimes his practice reflects an older pronunciation of the Latin words (syllables short in his day which had once been long). More often, though, and this is the case here with puer, Virgil simply places a short syllable where readers would firmly expect a long syllable to go. The best discussion of Virgil’s practice is in R. G. Austin’s wonderful commentaries on books of the Aeneid, for example his note at Aeneid 4.64 (pectoribus inhians), but Austin’s most important observation is that Virgil was sometimes clearly just exploiting the license for artistic effect: “Whatever the technical explanation of the matter, Virgil’s pleasure in using the device is obvious, and his skill as plain.”
So the question that occurred to me in Cheltenham was why Virgil had introduced a short-weight syllable at the end of desine plura puer.
I think it’s a very subtle, rather beautiful effect rounding off this pretty marvellous poem. In a sense Eclogue 9 is all about silence. The characters struggle, and fail, to remember the songs that are the quintessence of the pastoral pipedream: the pastoral world has lost its all-important music. We should note also that Virgil is coming to the conclusion of his own poetic collection: there is one more poem and the Eclogues will end, and since Virgil has encouraged us to see the Eclogues as themselves pastoral songs, the songs of pastoral figures in their idyllic surroundings (he refers to himself as Menalcas or Tityrus, names of herdsmen, for example, and Virgil’s poetry has a deliberately singsong quality), the fact that Virgil’s poetry falls silent at the end of the collection itself works as a protest against the forces that make the pastoral dream impossible, the civil wars pitting Roman against Roman.
Here Moeris, in the face of their overwhelming misfortunes, demands silence from the ever-optimistic Lycidas: “Say no more, boy.” In the subtlest way possible Virgil underlines that enforced silence, lengthening the pause at the caesura after puer with a syllable that falls ever-so-slightly too short. It might be just that phrase that is enhanced by that extended lack of sound, but desine plura, puer, in the context of a collection of pastoral songs, songs that conjure into existence a bewitching alternative existence, is a devastating statement. Within the poetry we “hear” momentarily the suppression of all poetry.
It is very, very technical stuff, sometimes, Roman poetry. But that can also be when it’s at its most gorgeously expressive.
Just because, here’s a section from the versified survey of metres by Terentianus Maurus, perhaps around A.D. 300, where he describes the bucolic diaeresis, followed by my best effort at an English version, aided by Cignolo’s edition (2002). At 2129-30 Terentianus translates the very beginning of Idyll 1 of Theocritus (“the child of Sicily”) into Latin (the Greek is Ἁδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς, αἰπόλε, τήνα,/ ἁ ποτὶ ταῖς παγαῖσι, μελίσδεται, ἁδὺ δὲ καὶ τύ/ συρίσδες, and both Greek lines have bucolic diaereses); and at 2133-4 he quotes the first two verses of Eclogue 3 of Maro (Virgil), exhibiting a nice opening example in an Meliboei. The “tetrameter” is the first four feet of the six-foot hexameter verse:
pastorale uolet cum quis componere carmen,
tetrametrum absoluat, cui portio demitur ima
quae solido a verbo poterit conectere uersum, 2125
bucolicon siquidem talem uoluere uocari.
plurimus hoc pollet Siculae telluris alumnus:
ne graecum immittam uersum, mutabo latinum,
‘dulce tibi pinus summurmurat, en tibi, pastor,
proxima fonticulis; et tu quoque dulcia pangis.’ 2130
iugiter hanc legem toto prope carmine seruat:
noster rarus eo pastor Maro, sed tamen inquit
‘dic mihi, Damoeta, cuium pecus? an Meliboei?
non, verum Aegonis: nuper mihi tradidit Aegon’.
If anyone wants to write a pastoral poem,
let them round off the tetrameter, to which a final section is lacking
which can complete the verse starting from an unbroken word,
since they have decided that such a verse be called “bucolic”.
A son of Sicily is best known for this:
so as not to introduce a Greek verse, I shall translate into Latin:
“The pine whispers sweetly, look, shepherd,
The one right by the springs; and you too make sweet songs.”
Theocritus observes this rule almost continually throughout his poetry;
for that reason our shepherd Maro, though sparing with it, still says
“‘Tell me, Damoetas, whose is the flock? Meliboeus’s?’
‘No, Aegon’s: Aegon handed it over to me the other day.’”
(Terentianus Maurus, De litteris de syllabis de metris 2123-2134)