Tag Archive | Aurel Stein

Lalage, a life

In 1913, Aurel Stein, archaeologist and explorer, was preparing for his third expedition into Chinese Turkestan, modern Xinjiang. He made sure to pack, as he always did, a copy of Horace’s Odes, on this occasion the recently published Odes and Epodes translated by C.E. Bennett in the new series of Loeb Classical Texts from Harvard University. On the inside cover of the book Stein wrote In ripis Hydaspis MDCCCCXIII, “On the banks of the Hydaspes 1913”. Later in his expedition he added Gravi vulnere aegrotantis solatium fuit iste libellus in montibus Sericis Nan-shan, “This book was a comfort when suffering from a serious injury in the Chinese Nan-shan mountains.” Stein had been thrown by an excitable horse and spent some time recuperating in camp, his Horace to hand. These inscriptions in Stein’s Loeb were recorded by L. Rásonyi, Stein Aurél és hagyatéka [Aurel Stein and his Legacy] (1960), on page 30, most fortuitously so as since that time the cover of the book, bequeathed along with much else by Stein to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, has been mislaid. I’m deeply grateful to Ágnes Kelecsényi of the Academy for all this information.

“On the banks of the Hydaspes” is a little Horatian joke on Stein’s part. He was in Srinagar, Kashmir, which lies on the river Jhelum or Vyeth, in Greek antiquity named Hydaspes, and so named in particular in one of Horace’s most popular odes, 1.22, Integer vitae:

I think I’ve now sent off a final text of Horace: A Very Short Introduction, which will see the light of day sooner or later, but I thought I might thread together some scattered references I make to this particular poem of Horace and its fairly remarkable life story. You can’t embed YouTube videos in a book, either, and it would be a shame not to share a couple of them.

Horace’s poem is a particularly satisfying exercise in playful misdirection. An apparently sombre and high-minded opening, claiming that the virtuous man should have no fear of any harm, a Stoic doctrine, is somewhat punctured by the appearance of an addressee for the poem, Aristius Fuscus, a literary type and friend of Horace who has been advertised as a man with a sense of humour in Satires 1.9 and would by implication be characterised as a Stoic with a sense of humour in Epistles 1.10. Greater damage still to the respectability of Odes 1.22 is done by the poet’s lover Lalage, whose name means “Chatterer”, “Babbler”. Horace is singing about her when the wolf runs away from him, but that seemingly incidental detail returns unexpectedly at the end of the poem to derail what we’re probably expecting to be a restatement of the opening: “No matter what inhospitable place I find myself in, my virtue will keep me safe” is instead “No matter what inhospitable place I find myself in, the answer is to sing about Lalage as I was doing when that wolf appeared.”

Philosophy gives way to a flippant love affair, then, and it’s possible also that the effect is reinforced by a move from poetry reminiscent of Alcaeus to a more Sapphic conclusion. The metrical form of the poem, the sapphic stanza, was shared between Alcaeus and Sappho, but there is a clear allusion to Sappho fr. 31 (and Catullus’ imitation of it) in the final image of Lalage, while specifically Alcaic elements in the poem have been argued for by Gabriele Burzacchini, QUCC 22 (1976), 39-58, and one might say (and once I did) that poetry focusing on an attractive young woman is itself intrinsically reminiscent of Sappho. I also suggested back then that the Mytilenean duo Sappho and Alcaeus offered Horace in his Odes a mini polarity between relatively serious and relatively unserious lyric poetry — always according to ancient stereotype.

That’s all as may be, but for our purposes what matters is that it follows from this account of Integer vitae that if you lop off the last four stanzas you have an apparently serious poem, and the remarkable truth is that historically 1.22 has probably been encountered far more often in this form, just the first or the first two stanzas, than as a whole. The reason for this is a melancholy musical setting by F.F. Flemming that became a standard at funerals in northern-European funerals. Here it is sung by a German collective, although somewhat inauthentically (I think) they sing the first three verses.

The other Latin author I’m currently working on, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, shares in his Latin-language newspaper a discussion of the poem between himself and a Finnish Classics professor in Helsinki, “F. G-n”, identified by my co-editor Michael Lombardi-Nash as Fridolf Vladimir Gustafsson, Professor of Latin at Helsinki University from 1882 to 1920 and according to Iiro Kajanto, “The Classics in Finland”, Arethusa 3 (1970), 205-226, a formative influence in the history of Classics in Finland. (This is a rich Classical culture under severe pressure at the moment, I’m sad to say: there are petitions worth signing relating to Classics at Oulu here and Turku here.) One thing that makes editing Alaudae such a fascinating activity are Ulrichs’ interlocutors across Europe and the US.

Gustafsson had attended a funeral of a friend at which Flemming’s Integer Vitae had been sung by the congregation, and the friend’s widow had asked him to translate the whole poem for her — an awkward dilemma, as Lalage is not especially funereal. What’s interesting is that Ulrichs, who is undoubtedly one of Horace’s very biggest fans, seems to agree with Gustafsson that the poem is unsatisfactory, a dignified opening spoiled by the entry and especially the reappearance of Lalage. “Someone once exclaimed, “How did Pontius Pilate creep into the Christians’ creed?” I exclaim, “How did Lalage into Integer Vitae?”” But both Gustafsson and Ulrichs will no doubt have attended numerous funerals where this strange hymn was sung, and the sombre associations were perhaps impossible to escape. They were not alone in wanting to lose Lalage, at any rate. The metrically identical socios, “fellows”, was another way of bowdlerizing away the love interest Lalagen in school texts.

The poem seems to have been favoured for musical setting also in the heyday of the frottola, the most widespread form of secular song in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italy. Here you can find a setting by Bartolomeo Tromboncino, and here at 2:10 by Michele Pesenti.

A final outing for the poem now, accompanied by a request for any others you know of. (I have myself found and am pondering a parody of the poem in Proceedings of the Cotteswold Naturalists’ Club circa 1853, beginning Innocens vitis, cellar-isque purus, “Innocent of the vine, of the cellar pure”, and by (I believe) William Henry Hyett.) Below is the whole of the stunning film of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, directed by Julie Taymor and starring Anthony Hopkins, an appropriately gothic take on a Goth-driven Revenge Drama. Titus is a very classically-aware play, with an overarching debt to Seneca, Ovid’s Metamorphoses a key prop in the plot, and a general determination to collect and stage the most ghastly myths from antiquity. Do watch it, but count to ten before you do. At 4.2.18 (around 1hr 37mins in the film, where Shakespeare’s text is slightly adapted), Titus Andronicus, having discovered the plot of Aaron the Moor to destroy his family, sends his best weapons to the two Goth sons of the empress Tamora, who under Aaron’s guidance have committed their ghastly crimes, and along with them a note containing a meaningful quotation of the first two lines of 1.22:


What’s here? A scroll, and written round about?

Let’s see:

[reads] Integer vitae, scelerisque purus,

Non eget Mauri iaculis, nec arcu.


O, ’tis a verse in Horace, I know it well.

I read it in the grammar long ago.


Ay, just — a verse in Horace, right, you have it.

[aside] Now, what a thing it is to be an ass!

Here’s no sound jest. The old man hath found their guilt

And sends them weapons wrapped about with lines

That wound, beyond their feeling, to the quick.

Anachronistically, these depraved young Roman-era Goths were educated using the so called Brevissima Institutio, a Latin textbook composed during the reign of Henry VIII by John Colet, Erasmus, but mainly William Lily, and in continuous use in schools for centuries thereafter. The first stanza of 1.22 is used in Lily as the model for its metrical form, the sapphic stanza. The textual variant Mauri, present in Lily and in Titus Andronicus, allows a pun, targeting Aaron: “The man pure in life and innocent of crime/ needs not the javelins nor bow of the Moor.” Aaron, at least, gets the point of it.

A moral of this very short history of Odes 1.22 is that, however much you try to suppress Lalage, she has a habit of resurfacing, sweetly laughing, sweetly speaking — a dynamic that began with Horace himself. A final thought is whether there’s a hint of the same here in Titus. Titus Andronicus’ beloved only daughter Lavinia has been raped and maimed by the Goth princes, at Aaron’s instigation, who have cut off her hands and removed “that delightful engine of her thoughts,/ that blabbed them with such pleasing eloquence” (3.1.83-4), her tongue. Yet she has managed to communicate the truth of their ghastly crimes nevertheless, mainly by means of a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses opened to the story of Philomela, and Titus’ revenge on Aaron and the princes follows.

Titus is surely conveying by the citation of Integer vitae not just that he knows of the plot, but that Lavinia has communicated it, the beloved babbler still babbling.

Dr. Stein

A fragment of very minor interest, barely worth blogging. But it is mid-summer.

I’m still writing a biographical sketch of Sir Harold Deane, first Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province of British India and formerly political officer in Dir and Swat, at which time he has a claim to have inaugurated the archaeological exploration of (the archaeologically remarkable) valley of Swat.

An optimistic sweep of JSTOR a few days ago introduced me to a fabulous resource, the correspondence of the Directors of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, more than 28,000 letters annotated, scanned and uploaded. Blessings on the anonymous heroes responsible.

Among them are seven short letters which give, as letters sometimes do, a vivid impression of a momentary human encounter. (They are discoverable in the Global Plants collection on JSTOR under the Identifier nos. KDCAS7981-KDCAS7987.) These letters carry dates between October 29 and November 22, 1910, and are all addressed to Sir David Prain, Director of the Gardens at Kew. The author of six of the seven is Lady Mary Gertrude Deane, known as Gertrude, widow of Harold Deane, who had died in 1908 at the age of 54.

The key detail of the exchange (of which we see Gertrude’s side almost exclusively) is her offer to Prain and Kew of the botanical specimens that had been collected by her late husband in NWFP over the course of the last few years of his life. As she explains, it is all still packed in a trunk in the flat she was occupying in Overstrand Mansions, overlooking Battersea Park in south-west London. She and her husband had left India abruptly when Harold was taken ill in 1908, and their possessions, including this trunk, evidently followed them before and after his death just two weeks after their arrival in Britain in July of the same year.

The first letter from Gertrude Deane, on October 29, 1910, contains her offer to donate the specimens to the collections at Kew. On November 1 Gertrude indicates that the offer has been accepted, expressing her pleasure at the news, and on the next day she writes to inform Prain that the trunk has been dispatched to Kew by goods train, enclosing the key that opens it. By November 9 Prain has acknowledged receipt, and on November 18 Gertrude suggests dates when she might visit Kew and see her husband’s collection in its new home. On November 22 final arrangements are being reached for tea at Prain’s house and a viewing, at some imminent but unspecified date, of a selection of her husband’s specimens, now incorporated into the collection at Kew. The seventh letter is an internal memo to the Director from Dr. Otto Stapf, Keeper of the Herbarium at Kew, proposing how the specimens might be presented to Lady Deane when she did visit.

What emerges clearly from this correspondence is Gertrude’s relief and delight that something can be done with her late husband’s collection. It’s easy enough to imagine what her flat felt like, filled with reminders of their life, abruptly curtailed, in Peshawar. For my purposes Harold Deane’s botanical interests illustrate nicely the intellectual dimension of a successful Imperial administrator’s engagement with the territory he managed, an intense concern for the botany of the NWFP parallel to his earlier interest in the archaeological remains of Malakand and Swat.

But the most interesting detail of the correspondence, for me at least, is only obliquely to do with Sir Harold Deane. This is where the thread of letters starts, the original source of Gertrude Deane’s idea to approach Kew, as it is indicated in the first letter to Prain on October 29. Gertrude describes discussing what to do with the material with “Dr. Stein”, who had come to visit her, and the implication is that it was Dr. Stein who had encouraged her to approach Kew.

In 1910 Aurel Stein was in the middle of a three year sabbatical in Europe, a significant chunk of it spent between London and Oxford, largely taken up with cataloguing within the British Museum, and also writing up, the incredibly rich discoveries he had made during his Second Central Asian Expedition, in particular the manuscripts and paintings that he had removed from the “Thousand Buddha Caves” at Dunhuang. Stein has suffered physically during this expedition, to the extent of losing the toes of his right foot to frostbite while crossing the mountains back into India. By late 1910, also, the dog that has accompanied him during the two-year expedition, across hot and cold deserts, Dash the Great, had been released from quarantine (we can all currently sympathise), but would thenceforth stay in Oxford, adopted by Stein’s closest friends, Helen and Percy Allen. Stein had exceptionally good connections within the intelligentsia of the Imperial capital, and Gertrude Deane was benefiting from it.

But what the glimpse of Aurel Stein in that opening letter also tells us is something about who he now was after the Second Expedition. Gertrude Deane begins her short letter of October 29, “When Dr. Stein came to see me the other day…”, and ends it “Dr. Stein served under my husband & is an old friend of our’s. We have known him many years.” She frames her letter with Aurel Stein because she knows perfectly well, I think, the power of the name she is dropping.

Here is Jeannette Mirsky in her biography Sir Aurel Stein, Archaeological Explorer (p. 322) on the transformation to Stein’s status and prospects that Dunhuang and the aftermath had wrought:

“Stein was suddenly seen as a hero. As the knight-errant who had freed documents languishing in a ‘black hole’, he was impressive; as the victor of an ambush set by a merciless cold, he was irresistible. This double victory assured that his requests were no longer ignored or postponed. Suddenly all doors were open to him; he had but to ask and that ‘great machine’, the bureaucracy, listened. If heretofore his work happened to coincide with the interests of the government, now the government bent to facilitate his work. The panorama gained by his new position extended to the furthest reach of his hopes.”

Aurel Stein could indeed be considered Deane’s protégé, as Gertrude suggests: her husband had been a critical source of support at an earlier stage of Stein’s career. But Stein recognised his debts and was scrupulous in repaying them, and in 1910, newly invested with honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and in June 1910 with the insignia of a Companion of the Indian Empire by the King, he and Gertrude knew that his name could open doors for others, too.

Athena in China


Take a look at the cover of any of Aurel Stein’s books after Sand-buried Ruins of Khotan (1904), and on the title page, and often also embossed on the front cover, you’ll find this image: a vignette of the goddess Athena in confrontational pose, brandishing a thunderbolt in her right hand and holding on her left arm the aegis, a terrifying goatskin shield tasselled with snakes and bearing the head of the Gorgon Medusa.

The picture is the work of Stein’s friend and collaborator, the artist Fred Andrews, and it’s based on a discovery Stein made while excavating at Niya, a site in the Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang, the extreme north-western region of China. Stein was investigating the ancient Buddhist cultures of the Silk Road, and in a third-century-AD rubbish tip (“its odours … still pungent after so many centuries”) he uncovered hundreds of letters written on wood, in an Indian language and script. The letters were sealed with clay, and the clay bore the personal seal-impressions of the senders of the letters:

From an historical point of view they claim exceptional interest, for they have furnished convincing evidence of the way in which the influence of classical Western art asserted itself even in distant Khotan. It was a delightful surprise when, on cleaning the first intact seal impression that turned up, I recognised in it the figure of Pallas Athene, with aegis and thunderbolt, treated in an archaic fashion. This particular seal … was found thereafter to recur frequently, and probably belonged to an official who was directly connected with the administration of the ancient settlement.

Alkidemos seal

On another letter Stein found “a seal with Chinese lapidary characters in juxtaposition with one showing a portrait head unmistakably cut after Western models.” This was quintessential Silk Road, “half-way between Western Europe and Peking,” the arena where Indian, European and Chinese cultural currents intermingled.

But it was Athena who became Stein’s emblem, and I’ve idly wondered for some time what the image meant to him.

Athena was a goddess of the intellect and the arts, an embodiment of those things that make human society civilized. She’s a goddess of war, too, obviously so in an image like this one. But Athena presides over the rational aspects of warfare, the strategy and tactics rather than the bloodletting (though that’s a pretty subtle distinction), justified war rather than aggression. So what a book under the sign of Athena promises is intellectual activity in the cause of human civilization, and that’s a fair summary of what Stein achieved in Central Asia.

But another question I had was how far Stein appreciated the history of his vignette of Athena. Because, coincidentally or not, the image he chose to adorn his books is an extremely significant one.

The best way to communicate this is to show you some coins. One from Macedonia to start with,


followed by one from Sicily,


and rounded off by one from Afghanistan/Pakistan:


These coins are of kings called Antigonus, Pyrrhus and Menander, the first two from the third century BC and Menander’s from about 140 BC. Stunningly, despite being from opposite ends of the known world, they depict the same figure of Athena.

Menander was the most successful of a series of Greek kings who ruled in what is present day Afghanistan and Pakistan, and this Athena remained a consistent feature of the coins of his successors, even one of the very last Greek kings, Strato II, who ruled a tiny kingdom somewhere near Lahore at the end of the first century BC:


This is a very sorry-looking issue indeed, and it speaks volumes about Strato’s straitened circumstances. But Athena is still there, even if she appears to have become left-handed.

Why is this image so important to the Greek kings? The thinking these days is that the Athena represented on the coins is a reminiscence of a particular statue of the goddess: the tutelary deity of Pella, the capital of Macedonia, known as Athena Alkidemos, Athena “Defender of the People.” Athena Alkidemos of Pella in turn evoked Alexander the Great, whose capital was at Pella, and for whom Athena was an important patron. We’re told that when Alexander advanced into battle he was preceded by a sacred shield of Athena from her temple at Troy, carried by a senior bodyguard. What Antigonus, Pyrrhus, Menander and Strato all have in common is a need to associate themselves with the charismatic person of Alexander, who had dramatically changed the face of the Greek world, and in the case of Menander and Strato had made their rule as Greek kings in Central Asia possible in the first place.

Stein’s discovery in Xinjiang throws the net even wider, of course. The functionary in Niya was using as his official seal, half a millennium after Alexander’s death, an image that had originated 3,000 miles to the west.

Did the official have any clue of the significance of the image? It’s doubtful. The knowledge of what Athena Alkidemos meant, the mystique of the long-dead Alexander that these kings wished to confer on themselves, quite possibly disappeared with the fall of Strato’s kingdom. And what of Aurel Stein? What did he understand by it?

Stein was certainly very interested in Alexander. In a career of remarkable discoveries in Central Asia, one thing he never left behind was the deep fascination for Alexander that he’d formed in childhood. Describing a tour of Swat in 1926, for example, Stein candidly admits that his interest in Alexander even exceeds his devotion to Xuanzang (also spelled Hsüan-tsang), the seventh-century Buddhist monk whose account of his travels from China to India guided Stein’s exploration of the Chinese borderlands:

May the sacred spirit of old Hsüan-tsang, the most famous of those pilgrims and my adopted ‘Chinese patron saint’, forgive the confession: what attracted me to Swat far more than such pious memories was the wish to trace the scenes of that arduous campaign of Alexander which brought the great conqueror from the foot of the snowy Hindukush to the Indus, on his way to the triumphant invasion of the Panjāb.

The ultimate aim of this expedition was a longstanding preoccupation of Stein, and indeed an obsession shared by many Europeans who had visited the territory to the west of the river Indus: to locate Aornos, a seemingly impregnable fortress captured by Alexander in 327BC.

An image of Athena carrying associations of Alexander would have been an entirely apt one for Stein to stamp upon his books. But while I’m certain he and Andrews recognised the kinship of the seal image from Niya with the “Greco-Bactrian” coins of kings like Menander and Strato, I’m not so sure he would have read Alexander himself into it. When Stein discusses it, he describes it as as imitating “an archaic type of Athene Promachos”, a similar notion of the goddess as a protective deity, but the link to Athena Alkidemos of Pella and thence to Alexander had not yet been traced.

If so, it is sheer serendipity that it’s Athena Alkidemos that we find at the front of Aurel Stein’s books, since his career could hardly find a more appropriate patron goddess. Like many of the the men who studied the archaeology and ancient history of Central Asia, Alexander drew Stein to places, geographical and intellectual, far removed from the classical education of his childhood, but without ever quite losing his grip. Indeed sometimes it seems to me that the West can never contemplate this part of the world without Alexander the Great muscling in.

  • Athena (brooklynrenee3.wordpress.com)