My blog poses the questions that everybody wants answered.
OK, maybe that’s optimistic, but I’m going to suggest that the Greco-Roman gods’ ability to weep is not a given, and thus when and how they dissolve in tears can be instructive.
Our text is a powerful scene in Aeneid 10 where the young warrior Pallas, facing his nemesis Turnus, prays to Hercules for success. It’s Hercules he appeals to because, as we have learnt in Aeneid 8, the hero had once visited the kingdom of Pallas’ father Evander (on the future site of Rome) and rid it of the troublesome monster Cacus. By this point in Book 10 we are some years later, and in the meantime Hercules has died and become the god to whom Pallas can direct his prayer.
Here is Pallas’ appeal, Hercules’ tearful response, and the chief god Jupiter’s reaction (10.457-73, accompanied by the translation of Fairclough and Goold in the Loeb):
hunc ubi contiguum missae fore credidit hastae,
ire prior Pallas, si qua fors adiuuet ausum
uiribus imparibus, magnumque ita ad aethera fatur:
‘per patris hospitium et mensas, quas aduena adisti,
te precor, Alcide, coeptis ingentibus adsis.
cernat semineci sibi me rapere arma cruenta
uictoremque ferant morientia lumina Turni.’
audiit Alcides iuuenem magnumque sub imo
corde premit gemitum lacrimasque effundit inanis.
tum genitor natum dictis adfatur amicis:
‘stat sua cuique dies, breue et inreparabile tempus
omnibus est uitae; sed famam extendere factis,
hoc uirtutis opus. Troiae sub moenibus altis
tot gnati cecidere deum, quin occidit una
Sarpedon, mea progenies; etiam sua Turnum
fata uocant metasque dati peruenit ad aeui.’
sic ait, atque oculos Rutulorum reicit aruis.
But Pallas, when he thought his foe within range of a spear-cast,
moved forward first, in the hope that chance would aid the venture
of his ill-matched strength, and thus to great heaven he cries:
“By my father’s welcome, and the table to which you came as a stranger,
I beseech you, Hercules of the stock of Alceus, aid my great enterprise.
May Turnus see me strip the bloody arms from his dying limbs,
and may his glazing eyes endure a conqueror!”
Hercules heard the youth, and deep in his heart
stifled a heavy groan, and shed useless tears.
Then with kindly words the Father addresses his son:
“Each has his day appointed; short and irretrievable is the span
of life for all: but to lengthen fame by deeds—
that is valour’s task. Under Troy’s high walls
fell those many sons of gods; indeed, with them fell
my own child Sarpedon. For Turnus too his own
fate calls, and he has reached the goal of his allotted years.”
So he speaks, and turns his eyes away from the Rutulian fields.
There’s a lot going on here, among other things an assimilation of Hercules to Aeneas, who had also visited Pallas’ father at the site of Rome and enjoyed his hospitality (compare 10.515-7, Pallas, Euandrus, in ipsis/ omnia sunt oculis, mensae quas advena primas/ tunc adiit, dextraeque datae). In addition, though, and this is relevant to the tears, Virgil’s Jupiter recalls in his consoling words to Hercules a very important moment in Homer’s Iliad, when Zeus/Jupiter himself had contemplated rescuing his son Sarpedon, a Lycian warrior allied to the Trojans, from his fated death at the hands of Patroclus (16.419-61). Back then Zeus had been dissuaded from any such intervention by Hera, and that scene had illustrated a theme central both to the Iliad and to the epic tradition as a whole: the insignificance of human life and the unbridgeable chasm that separates suffering mortals and the comfortable and untroubled existence enjoyed by the gods.
The unavoidable tragedy of human life and death is thus what Jupiter starts by reminding Hercules of here. But the name Sarpedon evokes another significant moment in the Iliad, as at 12.322-8 he is the mouthpiece for one of the most memorable statements of heroic values in the poem. Sarpedon explains to his fellow-Lycian Glaucus why they are obliged to lead the fight against the Achaeans:
“Ah friend, if once escaped from this battle
we were for ever to be ageless and immortal,
neither should I myself fight among the foremost,
nor should I send you into battle where men win glory;
but now—for in any case fates of death threaten us,
fates past counting, which no mortal may escape or avoid—
now let us go forward, whether we shall give glory to another, or another to us.”
Human life is incomparably worse than the life of the gods in the Iliad, but the brevity and insignificance of our human existence is also what shapes the heroic ethos, and indeed epic poetry. The inevitability of their death drives the heroes of epic to seek an alternative form of immortality, to compensate for abbreviated lives with the everlasting glory achieved by deeds great enough to be commemorated in song. That immortal glory, an alternative existence, is what Homer’s Iliad bestows on Sarpedon, and the fundamental heroic calculus, fame achieved by bravery in the face of certain death, is exactly what Jupiter is setting out for Hercules in Virgil’s account.
But it’s tears that I’m meant to be talking about.
When he hears Pallas’ prayer, Hercules weeps. His foreknowledge of Pallas’ doom is perhaps divine, but his tears are emphatically not. There was a well-established literary convention that the life of the gods was so carefree, in contrast to the limitless sufferings of humanity, that they could not physically cry. Now, we do see gods crying in Greco-Roman accounts: Artemis even cries in the Iliad after a scolding from Hera (21.493-6), and Aphrodite/Venus, while she doesn’t explicitly cry when stabbed by Diomedes in Iliad 5, does have eyes welling with tears when he addresses Jupiter at Aen. 1.228-9. But Venus is a special case among epic gods, closer in some respects to human shortcomings. In general, also, poetic convention was more rigid than poetic practice, and Ovid, a great manipulator of literary convention, twice asserts the principle that gods cannot cry, at Fasti 4.521-2 and Metamorphoses 2.621-2 (Apollo after killing his lover Coronis): “the cheeks of the heavenly gods may not be wet with tears”, he writes in the Metamorphoses. The passage in the Fasti I discuss in my forthcoming book Ovid: A Very Short Introduction, but the idea was clearly familiar to Virgil’s contemporary readers, and important when we contemplate Hercules, since as a god he really shouldn’t be crying.
Well, the fact that Hercules weeps is a hint, as delicate as can be, that he’s still a novice at this immortality game, only recently made a god, and not yet as free as a divinity should be of emotional attachments to humanity. Jupiter, the seasoned deity, puts Hercules right, teaching him that gods and humans are irrevocably different by virtue of death, and–if the Loeb translation of oculos Rutulorum reicit aruis (10.73) is right–gives him an object lesson in divine indifference by turning his gaze away from human misery in Italy.
So Virgil contradicts the rule that gods can’t cry, and also, in Hercules, allows a human to beat death and secure everlasting life. But it’s by breaking the rules that he achieves this immensely subtle characterisation of Hercules, and also, through Jupiter’s words, how he powerfully reasserts the essential truth of the heroic world: gods are ineffably happier than us, and we will die.
I’m currently deep into Ovid’s Fasti, possibly the world’s favourite Latin poet’s least popular poem. The Fasti is Ovid’s poetic version of the Roman calendar, originally designed to consist of twelve books corresponding to the twelve months. Ovid’s exile from Rome in AD 8 put paid to that, or at any rate Books 1-6 are all that survive for us to read. I’m studying it at this moment because we’ve just added Book 6, June, to one of our main literature courses.
Actually I need no excuse to read the Fasti as it’s probably my favourite poem of Ovid, and one thing I love about it is the way that the poet’s focus on Rome’s calendar, which automatically entails an interest in the religious festivals that make up the Roman year (and thus the history of Rome), also grounds the poem in the physical city of Rome, where stood the temples at which all the various religious festivals took place, and whose foundation dates were also commemorated in the Roman calendar. As Catherine Edwards says, “It was not possible [for Ovid] to consider the organisation of Roman time without engaging also with the spatial context through which Roman time was articulated” (Writing Rome: textual approaches to the city, p. 57): Ovid’s Fasti is a poetic calendar, but it’s also a kind of poetic city plan. I may not be selling it very well, but this is a city plan composed by the wittiest, most inventive versifier Rome ever produced.
Well, I found myself thinking very hard about the topography of Rome in a cafe in Bath last week. I had reached Fasti 6.395-396, forte reuertebar festis Vestalibus illa,/ quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est. The issue here is the first word of the second line, quae in the text I was reading, but which I instinctively felt should be qua. (Bath is an appropriate place to get fixated on Latin minutiae, I feel.) I’ll set out the passage around it with the Loeb Latin text and English translation, though as we’ll see the Latin and the translation, by the celebrated anthropologist Sir James Frazer, don’t entirely match up:
“It chanced that at the festival of Vesta I was returning by that way which now joins the New Way to the Roman Forum. Hither I saw a matron coming down barefoot: amazed I held my peace and halted. An old woman of the neighbourhood perceived me, and bidding me sit down she addressed me in quavering tones, shaking her head. ‘This ground, where now are the forums, was once occupied by wet swamps: a ditch was drenched with the water that overflowed from the river. That Lake of Curtius, which supports dry altars, is now solid ground, but formerly it was a lake. Where now the processions are wont to defile through the Velabrum to the Circus, there was naught but willows and hollow canes; often the roisterer, returning home over the waters of the suburb, used to tip a stave and rap out tipsy words at passing sailors. Yonder god (Vertumnus), whose name is appropriate to various shapes, had not yet derived it from damming back the river (averso amne). Here, too, there was a grove overgrown with bulrushes and reeds, and a marsh not to be trodden with booted feet. The pools have receded, and the river confines its water within its banks, and the ground is now dry; but the old custom survives.’ The old woman thus explained the custom. ‘Farewell, good old dame,’ said I; ‘may what remains of life to thee be easy all.'”
Forte revertebar festis Vestalibus illa, 395
quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est.
huc pede matronam vidi descendere nudo:
obstipui tacitus sustinuique gradum.
sensit anus vicina loci, iussumque sedere
alloquitur, quatiens voce tremente caput: 400
“hoc, ubi nunc fora sunt, udae tenuere paludes;
amne redundatis fossa madebat aquis.
Curtius ille lacus, siccas qui sustinet aras,
nunc solida est tellus, sed lacus ante fuit.
qua Velabra solent in Circum ducere pompas, 405
nil praeter salices cassaque canna fuit;
saepe suburbanas rediens conviva per undas
cantat et ad nautas ebria verba iacit.
nondum conveniens diversis iste figuris
nomen ab averso ceperat amne deus. 410
hic quoque lucus erat iuncis et harundine densus
et pede velato non adeunda palus.
stagna recesserunt et aquas sua ripa coercet,
siccaque nunc tellus: mos tamen ille manet.”
reddiderat causam. “valeas, anus optima!’ dixi 415
“quod superest aevi, molle sit omne, tui.”
It is the festival of Vesta, June 9, and Ovid reminisces (or claims to) about walking somewhere in the vicinity of the Roman Forum and seeing a woman walking barefoot. There follows an explanation of the oddity from an older woman, who explains that this part of Rome had once been marshy. The Nova Via or New Way (in actual fact exceptionally old even in Ovid’s day) ran along the south side of the Forum, below the Palatine Hill, and the statue of Vertumnus probably stood near the junction of the New Way and the Vicus Tuscus, which led into the centre of the Forum. (Andrew Sillett alerts me to Alessandro Barchiesi’s identification of the shape-shifting Vertumnus with the old woman, uicina loci, whom Ovid meets and speaks to, The Poet and the Prince, 188-189, which is a very good idea…) The Lake of Curtius, meanwhile, was a monument in the heart of the Forum. It is typical of the Fasti that Ovid gets his information about ritual practice by a combination of interested observation (the scholarly persona he adopts in the poem), and a knowledgeable informant explaining causae, “causes,” here the old woman of the neighbourhood to whom Ovid somewhat untactfully wishes the best for the limited period of life remaining to her. That scholarly character, the role of the informant and the interest in causes and etymologies (such as that of Vertumnus) place the Fasti very firmly in the tradition of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus.
But I’m fixated on that quae. As I’ve already suggested, the Loeb’s Latin text and English translation don’t quite match up here. Frazer translates 395-396, forte reuertebar festis Vestalibus illa,/ quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est, as if it is not quae that starts 396 but qua. A subtle change, for sure, but changing the relative pronoun from a nominative to an ablative does make quite a significant difference to the sense. Reading qua, as Frazer evidently does, Ovid is walking “along the route by which the New Way is now connected to the Roman Forum.” Reading quae, Ovid is walking along the New Way itself, and the Latin means “along the route which, as the New Way, is now connected to the Roman Forum,” or “along the New Way, which is now connected to the Roman Forum.” Qua places Ovid on a side street connecting the Forum and the New Way, in other words, while quae places him on the New Way itself. And what is weird, and quintessentially Fastian, is that while I’m worrying about a detail of Ovid’s text I’m also thinking very hard about the detailed topography of the Roman Forum.
For what it’s worth (and I tend to attach quite a lot of significance to this), the manuscript evidence is pretty unequivocal. Almost all our sources for the text of Fasti 6.396 have qua not quae. We owe the reading quae to the Danish scholar Johan Nicolai Madvig, but the longest defence of quae has been made by Franz Bömer,* who addressed the question in the course of producing a full commentary on the Fasti. I’m not personally persuaded. Bömer’s article elaborates in some detail what scenario Ovid might be describing if we go with quae, but aside from other things the upshot is a rather redundant description of the New Way, “which is now connected to the Roman Forum” (so what?) that to me doesn’t come across as very Ovidian.
The best way to positively justify qua is by means of a map, and here is the vicinity of the Temple of Vesta taken from Samuel Ball Platner’s The Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome. It is always worth bearing in mind that the reconstruction of Roman topography, as it was at any specific time in Roman history especially, can be highly speculative, and that is particularly the case in this area at the edge of the Forum. But I’ve checked The Atlas of Ancient Rome edited by Andrea Carandini (a truly beautiful thing: my birthday is in June, a few days after the festival of Vesta…), and in any respects that matter it agrees with Platner. We can make out here the circular Temple of Vesta (“T. Vestae” in red), one of the most sacred locations in the city, from which it is natural to assume that Ovid was returning, and beside it the Atrium Vestae in which the Vestal Virgins who served Vesta’s cult lived. Along the other side of the Atrium Vestae runs the Nova Via, New Way. Below the Temple of Vesta is the Temple of Castor (“T. Castoris”), where the official weights and measures were kept and the Senate occasionally met, and below that the Basilica Iulia built by Julius Caesar with the spoils of the Gallic War. To the left of the Basilica is the Lake of Curtius (“Lacus Curtius”) mentioned by Ovid; the statue of Vertumnus that he also mentions seemed to have stood a little back from the top righthand corner of the Basilica.**
It seems to me that qua makes good sense of this cityscape. What Ovid is describing, the route linking the Form and the New Way, is something like what is represented by the grey band leading from beside the Temple of Vesta up to and then beyond the Nova Via. This was a staircase that allowed access from the lower-lying Forum up to the Palatine Hill. It is shown also on a piece of the Marble Plan, above the edge of the Temple of Castor,*** and it seems to be what Frazer means by “a cross-road, joining the Sacred Way and the Forum down on the flat with the New Way up on the hill” that he personally inspected in the winter of 1900-1901 and identified with Ovid’s route (The Fasti of Ovidius Vol. 4, p. 238). From the upper level of it you could, I think, see the statue of Vertumnus (iste in 409 seems to me to suggest it is visible as Ovid and the old woman converse), and it answers to what qua requires, a route connecting the Nova Via and the Forum in a way convenient for someone walking home (Ovid lived near the Capitol, Tristia 1.3.29-30) from the Temple of Vesta. It also gives a little more force to the verb used for the bare-footed woman who piqued Ovid’s interest in the first place: she is “descending” the staircase towards the Forum as Ovid climbs out of it, or that seems a natural reading. Ovid describes a recent development, it should be noted (“by that way which now joins the New Way to the Roman Forum”), so we would have to assume some work on the staircase by Augustus. Lawrence Richardson, in Ernest Nash’s Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1962) Vol. 2, 123-124, knits all the various threads together very satisfactorily, using Ovid as evidence for developments in the late Republican or Augustan period.
Now, Richardson assumes that Ovid means what I think he means, and Ovid is part and parcel of his reconstruction of the topography of this part of ancient Rome, so my argument could very easily get as circular as Vesta’s temple. (Barney Taylor comes to my defence, pointing out that, quae or qua, the connection between New Way and Forum mentioned should be that staircase, so Richardson’s reconstruction looks like the only one compatible with any interpretation of Ovid.) The truth remains that any reconstruction of this area of Rome in Ovid’s day is bound to be nine parts guesswork. Furthermore, Bömer’s defence of quae is much more detailed than I have given him credit for, and he has counterarguments to a number of the points I (or Frazer) might want to make in favour of qua. I’m still pretty convinced the transmitted text qua is the right one, but the most important point, whether it’s qua or quae, whether Bömer’s right or Sir James, is what this all tells us about Ovid’s Fasti, a poem embedded in the physical city of Rome, in which preferring qua to quae is all that stands between a monumental staircase and oblivion. Does it get any better than this, a poem from “the sweet witty soul of Ovid” that takes you on a tour of ancient Rome, its religious festivals and its physical monuments? And I haven’t even mentioned the stars and constellations that also feature prominently in Ovid’s calendar…
In the unlikely event you can stand any more, I wrote a short article about Ovid using Jupiter as an explanation of Rome’s topography that’s on open access here. For more geography there is another blog here (you will note I have shamefully all-but-reused a blog title), and for more calendrical stuff in Roman poetry a very succinct blog here.
*F. Bömer, “Zu Ovid, Fasti VI 396,” Bonner Jahrbücher 154 (1954), 29-31;
**M. C. J. Putnam, “The Shrine of Vortumnus,” American Journal of Archaeology 71 (1967), 177-179;
***O. Marruchi, “Recent Excavations in Rome,” American Journal of Archaeology 2 (1886), 334-341, at 335-336.