The year, versified

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annuus exactis completur mensibus orbis

the cycle of the year, with the conclusion of the months, is completed

Virgil, Aeneid 5.46: Aeneas, in Sicily, is informing his men that he will stage games in honour of his dead father Anchises, and that exactly a year has passed since his father’s death, also in Sicily. That year has been taken up by the action described in Books 1 and 4, the Trojans’ stay in Carthage, and Aeneas’s affair with the Queen of Carthage, Dido.

Some individual lines of Virgil’s 10,000-line epic are themselves tiny works of art. Here the poet sets out to embody the character of a year in the shape of his metrical line, the key idea in play being that the year is circular, a cycle, orbis. Aeneid 5.46 is a linear disposition of Latin words, a poetic line, but also, by virtue of the disposition of those words, as close as a line of verse can get to a circle.

Here it is again with the relations between the words of the line highlighted: this being an inflected language, the words are connected by their form, not proximity.

(((annuus ((exactis (completur) mensibus)) orbis)))

The verb expressing the fulfilment of the year, completur, sits at the centre of the line, while the two words at its far extremes, annuus and orbis, are in agreement: “the yearly cycle”, “the cycle of the year.” Immediately bracketing completur are exactis and mensibus, and they too are in agreement: an ablative absolute, “with the conclusion of the months.”

The line is thus a sense unit organized into a perfectly concentric shape; like a hailstone, its components arranged around its central element. If the cycle of the year can be expressed in the form of a verse, this is it.

Faustum annum nouum!

 

Zeus in Tokyo

(July 2016)

Foot

Image from P. Bernard, “Quatrième campagne de fouilles à Aï Khanoum (Bactriane),” CRAI 113 (1969), 313-55, at 339.

The foot is as beautiful as a foot can be, which it turns out is very beautiful. It is a left forefoot, strictly speaking, a piece of marble 21 cm across and 27 cm from its perfectly modelled toes to the strap of its sandal. “The sculptor worked well à la grecque,” wrote its excavator, Paul Bernard, “and I would go so far as to say, faced with the perfection of the work, that he could only have been Greek.” Yet it was found in the principal temple of Ai Khanum, a site beside the Oxus on the northern frontier of Afghanistan, and I am contemplating it in a display case in Tokyo.

It was unearthed in what had been the inner sanctuary of the temple. In a brilliant few pages of his report of the season’s excavations to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris, Bernard, Director of DAFA, the French archaeological mission in Afghanistan, extrapolated from this fragment to the full statue. It was two to three times life-size, probably seated, and an “acrolith,” the head, hands and feet rendered in marble with the rest of the statue modelled in clay over a wooden framework. As for the god’s identity, the sandal he was wearing is decorated with a palmette, rosettes and a third symbol that offers a powerful clue, two winged thunderbolts at either extremity of the strap. Thunderbolts point to Zeus, chief of the Greek pantheon, perhaps as depicted on contemporary coins with a sceptre grasped in his left hand (fragments of the statue’s left hand seemed to be closed around something cylindrical,) and an eagle or victory in his extended right. 

But this most Hellenic deity sat in a temple emphatically un-Greek in architectural form, and the ritual it hosted must have been comparably syncretic. This was Zeus assimilated to an eastern deity, the Iranian god Mithra most likely (coin images also give Zeus a solar crown, Mithraic iconography), but maybe the god of the river beside which he sat enthroned. Oxus was worshipped along his banks from the time of the Persian Empire up to and beyond the advent of Islam.

In its palpable Greekness the marble foot encapsulated one aspect of this remarkable, disorienting dig deep in Central Asia. The DAFA excavations at Ai Khanum extended from 1964 until 1978; the foot was found in 1968. What they had uncovered was “a Greek city in Afghanistan,” clear physical evidence, long but vainly sought by the French archaeologists, of a Greek presence in Central Asia in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the fourth century BC. In fact it was more than just “a Greek city”, as the architecture of the temple already indicates, but Ai Khanum did offer remarkable insight into Greek colonisation of the east. Evidence of such Greek cultural staples as drama, philosophical dialogues and olive oil contributed to a picture of Greek colonists doing all they could to convince themselves they were still Greek, 2,500 miles from their homeland.

The foot of a syncretic deity, carved by a Greek in Afghanistan, has already covered some metaphorical distance. But this particular piece had a great deal further to travel. Its next stop was the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, which by the 1970s, enriched by stunning discoveries at Begram (seemingly a merchant’s stock from the first century AD), Hadda (a series of richly embellished Buddhist monasteries) and Surkh Kotal (a dynastic cult centre of the Kushans, the dominant power in Central Asia in the first centuries AD) as well as Ai Khanum, had become one of the most celebrated collections in the world. (The National Museum of Afghanistan could also claim, refreshingly, that all its holdings originated in Afghanistan.)

In the anarchy of the 1990s, however, when the Soviets had evacuated Afghanistan and the forces of the anti-Soviet mujaheddin were fighting among themselves for control of the country, the museum found itself on the front line between government and opposing factions. The exhibits judged most valuable, including the “Bactrian gold” grave goods found at a nomadic burial site at Tillya Tepe in the late 1970s, were removed to secure locations in government buildings. Frantic efforts were made by staff and foreign volunteers to secure what remained in the museum, but the building was isolated, unstaffed, and hopelessly vulnerable to militias in need of funds.

One of the foreign volunteers, the architect Jolyon Leslie, described in the May 1996 issue of the SPACH newsletter (SPACH had been established to protect Afghanistan’s cultural heritage) the targeted nature of what followed:

“It is clear that once the news of the state of the Museum surfaced, the demand abroad for pieces from the collection, to a large extent, drove the looting. From the very beginning, it was evident that the intruders knew exactly what they were looking for. As the most portable objects (coins) and those of the highest value (including the ivories) disappeared, the looters have become ever-more audacious in their search for riches. Only months ago, a large schist Buddha (which we had presumed safe due to its weight) was hacked off the wall and spirited out of the lobby of the Museum overnight.”

Zeus’ foot was already long gone.

The logistics of transporting a solid stone sculpture from a warzone to a private collection in the developed world are complex, needless to say, but expertise was at hand. The bazaar in Peshawar, across the border in Pakistan, played a key role in the trade. International dealers had the contacts there, and were happy to shell out exorbitant sums to representatives of militia groups in the confidence that collectors in the West and Japan would give them a 100 per cent mark up. Export licenses were forthcoming from officials in various transit countries for the right price.

No doubt dealers and collectors consoled themselves with the thought that they were rescuing precious antiquities from the perils of war. As it transpired, they probably were: neither Zeus’ foot nor an image of the Buddha would have escaped the attention of the Taliban when they entered the museum with sledgehammers in February 2001. But back at source in the mid-1990s, the price fetched by an image of the Buddha was funding a savage conflict for control of Kabul.

Another item looted to order was a fine second/third-century AD relief, also solid schist, of the Buddha converting the Kashyapa brothers, staunch Brahmans sceptical of the Buddha’s new doctrine. It was excavated by a DAFA team at the monastery site of Shotorak north of Kabul in 1937, and stolen from the first-floor corridor of the museum on 31st December, 1992. It is a striking example of “Gandharan art,” the meeting of a Greek aesthetic and Buddhist worship. At the far right of this relief stand images of the couple, Kushan elite, who dedicated it. “The man, although wearing garments of Kushan style, has a Hellenistic cast of features,” we read in David Snellgrove’s great compilation The Image of the Buddha, “while the woman has adopted an entirely Greek costume,” striking evidence of the continuing “vitality of the classical tradition” half a millennium after Alexander.

The ultimate destination of this relief was Japan; Zeus’ foot and the Buddha mentioned by Leslie (unearthed by farmers at Sarai Khuja north of Kabul in 1965, and again second or third-century AD) soon followed it. An exhibition of the “Bactrian gold” and other material placed in secure storage before the looting began, has been circling the globe, in various guises, since 2006. When it came to the British Museum in 2011, the Sarai Khuja Buddha was restored to the National Museum of Afghanistan’s collection with some fanfare by an anonymous London dealer, who had purchased it from a collector in Japan. This year, when the exhibition arrived in Japan, it was supplemented by a small collection of items “rescued” from the antiquities market, some of which also originated in the museum in Kabul. They include fragments of wall paintings from the monastic caves at Bamiyan, stucco figures, the relief of the Kashyapa Brothers—and the star exhibit, Zeus’ foot. The publicity for the exhibition in Japan stated that with the conclusion of the exhibition in the Tokyo National Museum all these items, like the Sarai Khuja Buddha, would be restored to the National Museum in Kabul.

How Zeus’ foot made its way from the National Museum of Afghanistan to the National Museum of Japan is clear enough in outline, less so in detail. It appears that the dealer who secured it in Pakistan and sold it on to a Japanese collector was British. Thereafter we’re dependent on a narrative that was first pitched in 2001 and to which the literature of the exhibition in Japan adheres very closely: it was the passion and commitment of one man, Ikuo Hirayama, that recovered these pieces from private ownership. Hirayama was a successful and wealthy nihonga (neo-traditionalist) painter. A native of Hiroshima, he was a hibakusha, survivor of the Bomb, and as well as that formative experience, his art reflected both a deep Buddhist faith and a personal interest in the origins of Japanese Buddhism. Afghanistan in the Gandharan period had a special place in Hirayama’s affections, a critical stage in the transmission of Buddhism to east Asia, and hence (to Hirayama’s mind) the source of much of what made Japan what it was. Bamiyan with its giant Buddhas, first visited by Hirayama in 1968, was a particular focus of his interest and a regular subject of his painting. His model and inspiration was the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang, who travelled to India in pursuit of sacred texts and left us the first and fullest account of Bamiyan when it was still Buddhist.

Hirayama was a generous benefactor, reflected in the Hirayama Conservation Studio at the British Museum, which specializes in the preservation of Asian paintings, funded by Hirayama and the Five Cities Art Dealers Association of Japan. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan one can visit the Ikuo Hirayama International Caravanserai of Culture. The Ikuo Hirayama Silk Road Fellowship Program supports academic research. He enters the saga of Zeus’ foot when, in 2001, he established the Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Properties, its aim to safeguard art and antiquities displaced by conflict from their country of origin, with Afghanistan again the focus. The Committee collected a total of 102 artefacts smuggled out of Afghanistan with a view to returning them to Afghan ownership. Now in 2016 (Hirayama died in 2009) 15 of these illicitly trafficked antiquities are on display alongside the exhibition in the Tokyo National Museum, the foot among them, and the promise of repatriation is finally, it seems, to be honoured. [It was: in August 2016 the foot and other artefacts were returned to Kabul.]

What complicates this picture is that Hirayama was also a collector, and a voracious one. Two private museums in Japan survive him, one near Hiroshima concentrating on his painting, and another, the Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum in the mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture, which showcases his collection of artefacts from the Silk Road. The Gandharan material he managed to collect is of staggeringly high quality, quite comparable to the holdings of famous national museums, though only a fraction is on display in his museum.

As for the sources of his collection, some of it must originate in illicit digs, and some of it must come from Afghanistan: the lack of provenance makes it hard to be certain. The sculptures are exquisite but deracinated, strictly objets d’art in the absence of any information about the monastic environment for which they were created. Zeus’ foot is of course a vastly richer survival for the ritual context in which Paul Bernard and his team were able to set it. Nor is it self-evident by what principle the items in the Tokyo exhibition are being returned to Afghanistan, even though some of them did not originate in the National Museum, while ostensibly Afghan pieces in Hirayama’s private collection are not.

We are informed that Hirayama secured these items from Japanese collectors or dealers, but that no money changed hands. The aim is presumably to distance the operation from the antiquities market, but it’s hard to know how else it could have been managed. In any case, it all rather presupposes an expert understanding of the trade on Hirayama’s, or his advisers’, part: only a seasoned collector could have had the requisite connections or access. The exculpatory psychology, however, is familiar enough. Dealers and collectors of antiquities, like the rest of us, need to see their activities as culturally beneficial, protective rather than acquisitive. Given recent Afghan history, artefacts from that country have been especially easy to style as recipients of cultural rescue, and collecting as disinterested guardianship: the date of the establishment of the Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Properties, 2001, when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up and antiquities that remained in the National Museum smashed by Taliban, was, a cynic might suggest, an excellent moment for dealers and collectors to present themselves as heroes. Nevertheless, Hirayama’s work on behalf of these “cultural refugees”, as he called them, brought him honours from UNESCO; and by his good offices Zeus’s foot, lost without trace since its theft from Kabul, was exhibited in Tokyo in the same year, clearly identified as a piece of Afghan cultural heritage.

If the ethical contradictions of collecting are on display in Tokyo, a more profound oddity of the commercial network in which Zeus’ foot was caught up is captured by a simple glance at a map of the Eurasian landmass. At one extreme is London, base of the dealer who apparently sold it; at the other, Japan, where he, and other dealers, found a ready market. Equidistant between the two, four thousand miles from each, lies Afghanistan. A market of course entails a taste for an artistic style. In the West Gandharan art commands top dollar at major auction houses, but the source of its appeal deserves greater attention. When Kipling, early in Kim, describes Gandharan sculpture in the Lahore Museum, “done, savants know how long since, by forgotten workmen whose hands were feeling, and not unskilfully, for the mysteriously transmitted Grecian touch,” he captures the thrill that Europeans found in Gandharan art, like Ai Khanum a beguilingly displaced piece of the familiar. As such, the Raj collectors of Gandharan buddhas, whose heirs donated them to British museums, were part of a larger colonial phenomenon, the identification in the traces of the Greek presence in north-west India of a charter myth justifying their own presence in a space where Europeans—and the archetypal European, Alexander—had left so potent a mark before them.

To find, as one does, that Gandharan art possesses a comparable mystique in Japan is thus intriguing, and nowhere embodies the phenomenon better than Hirayama’s own museum in Yamanashi. The visitor literature insists on the relevance of this material to Japanese identity: talk of origins is much in evidence. Hirayama’s trips to Central Asia, and Afghanistan especially, were undertaken “in search of the sources of Japanese culture”; the Silk Road art showcased here, Gandharan especially, illustrates how “what we now proudly call Japanese culture has been blessed with the cultures of many other countries.” Elsewhere Hirayama had described his first visit to Afghanistan in 1968, “to seek the origins of Japanese culture and to follow the way that Buddhism diffused” out of India and towards Japan. The physical setting of the museum reinforces this message. The Yatsugatake mountains around the museum, according to the pamphlet, were one of the centres of the prehistoric Jomon people, “the origin of Japanese Culture.” Most strikingly of all, the Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum is so orientated as to capture from its upper terrace a perfect view of Mount Fuji, for Japanese and non-Japanese the ultimate symbol of the country. The implication is that art from Central Asia belongs, somehow, in Japan.

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Fuji in cloud, from the museum.

Hirayama’s tastes were his own, but his preoccupation with Afghanistan reflects a wider Japanese interest in central Asian art and history. This is not independent of western cultural tastes, but is additionally motivated by Japan’s perception of its special relationship with the early Buddhist cultures of Asia. Since the Second World War this has driven an active humanitarian engagement with Afghanistan, but also archaeological activity. The focus of Japanese archaeologists has been Buddhist sites, although far from limited to them, and Bamiyan in particular. A project by Kyoto University in the 1970s, led by Professor Takayasu Higuchi, created a comprehensive photographic record of the site of Bamiyan, with its hundreds of monastic caves dotting the cliffs around the giant Buddhas. This, needless to say, has proved a precious resource since 2001, and indeed Japan was of all countries the most active in trying to dissuade the Taliban from destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

The trade in Gandharan art is the dark side of this academic involvement, and the symmetry with the West again arresting. Perhaps inevitably, Japan’s taste for Gandharan art encapsulates in its own way the country’s modern history, a process involving both intense emulation of the industrialized West and energetic assertion of a unique Japanese identity. Insisting on Japan’s obligation to assume a leading role in safeguarding Asian cultural properties, Hirayama had asserted that “Only Japan can carry out such a task because it has close spiritual and cultural ties with Asian countries. Western countries cannot do that job.” One might counter that the Japanese attachment to Afghanistan, at any rate, is every bit as wishful and romantic as the western; it’s just that Alexander the Great has given place to Xuanzang.

We should be grateful that Zeus’ foot is returning to Afghan ownership, by whatever means, and applaud UNESCO’s pragmatic approach to the problem. As for the deeper reasons for the travels and travails of this particular antiquity, at the root of its discovery by French archaeologists at Ai Khanum, no less than its adventures in the international art market, is the aesthetic appeal of the fusion of east and west in a Gandharan Buddha, or in Zeus-Mithra’s foot. I for one travelled all the way to Tokyo to see it.

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Back home in the National Museum, Kabul in August 2016 (photo courtesy of Zardasht Shams)

Exsecratio

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Some flamens, photo by Sophie Hay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

Vulgaria

Version 2Photo courtesy of Sophie Hay

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

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

                                       nobis properantibus obstat

unda prior, magno populus premit agmine lumbos

qui sequitur; ferit hic cubito, ferit assere duro

alter, at hic tignum capiti incutit, ille metretam.

pinguia crura luto, planta mox undique magna

calcor, et in digito clavus mihi militis haeret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nec querulus, turba quamuis eliderer, essem,

sed foret a populo tum mihi dulce premi.

prospicerem gaudens quantus foret agminis ordo

densaque quam longum turba teneret iter,

quoque magis noris quam me uulgaria tangant,

spectarem qualis purpura te tegeret.

signa quoque in sella nossem formata curuli

et totum Numidi sculptile dentis opus.

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

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

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

The late, lamented P. Ovidius Naso

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

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

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

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

Fine composition in the opening

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

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

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

A vintage piece of Ovidian wit

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

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

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

A bold illustration

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

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

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

Finally, real pathos

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

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

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

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

Cat people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horace on living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_ _ u _ _ _ u _ _

_ u u _ u u _ u _ _

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte, uixisti.