Friday, 27 December 2013

The Library at Herculaneum

Salve! I noticed an interesting short article on the Library of Scrolls at Herculaneum on the BBC News website here . The article gives a tantalising sense of mystery as to what the rest of the as-yet unexplored library and other rooms of the extensive villa may contain.
It is worth bearing in mind that we only have about 10% of the Classical Corpus...that's a lot of lacunae in our knowledge...perhaps some more pieces of the picture await us beneath the mosaic...a lost Roman epic set in Britannia perhaps..the travel journals of Epicurus...during his sojourns in the Buddhistic Kingdoms...or even a Roman senator's disputations with a Hebraic shaman known as the Christus! Look forward to seeing you all this weekend.         Vale!

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Final Vision - Xerxes and the Phantom

We end the series of visions with a scene from Book VII (Polymnia) during the night following that day’s council of war in which Xerxes has rebuked the advice of Artabanus and boldly announced his intention to invade Hellas.


I. Tauta men epi tosouto elegeto. Meta de euphrone te egineto kai Xerxen eknizde e Artabanou gnome: nukti de boulen didous pangku heuriske oi ou pregma einai strateuesthai epi ten Hellada. Dedogmenon de oi autis touton katupnose, kai de kou en tei nukti eide opsin toiede, hos legetai hupo Perseon: edokee ho Xerxes andra oi epi stanta megan te kai eueida eipein. ‘meta de bouleueai, ho Persa, strateuma me agein epi ten Hellada,proeipas halizdein Persas stratov;oute ov metabouleumenos poieeis eu oute ho sungnosomenos toi para: all’ hosper tes hemeres ebouleusao poieen,tauten ithi tov hodov.’



Thus far was it spoken then; but afterwards when darkness came on, the opinion of Artabanos tormented Xerxes continually; and making night his counselor he found that it was by no means to his advantage to make the march against Hellas. So when he had thus made a new resolve, he fell asleep, and in the night he saw, as is reported by the Persians, a vision as follows:-Xerxes thought that a man tall and comely of shape came and stood by him and said: ‘Art thou indeed changing thy counsel, O Persian, of leading an expedition against Hellas, now that thou hast made proclamation that the Persians shall collect an army? Thou dost not well in changing thy counsel, nor will he who is here present with thee excuse the for it; but as thou didst take counsel in the day to do, by that way go.’

De Sélincourt:

So ended the speeches at the conference. Later on that evening Xerxes began to be worried by what Artabanus had said, and during the night, as he turned it over in his mind, he came to the conclusion that the invasion of Greece would not, after all, be a good thing. Having reached this decision he fell asleep; and the Persians say that before the night was over he dreamed that the figure of a man, tall and of noble aspect, stood by his bed. ’Lord of Persia’, the phantom said, ‘have you changed your mind and decided not to lead and army against Greece, in spite of your proclamation to your subjects that troops should be raised? You are wrong to change; and there is one here who will not forgive you for doing so. Continue to tread the path which you chose yesterday.’

Again, De Selincourt seems the more fluid, but here I can see that Macaulay, in staying close to the Greek has managed to leave in more of the detail that matters.  In the first comparison, we have the verb eknizde rendered as merely worried in De Selincourt, where it is more accurately translated in context as tortured ( although it can also be taken in some contexts to mean troubled - its literal meaning is to purge or wash out so the aorist here would imply going through the mill as opposed to being a bit concerned) by Macaulay. This is where I think that Macaulay has the occasional edge and that while De Selincourt is possibly better paced, the accuracy is sacrificed and this example is a meaningful case in point.

The text of Macaulay is in other places a tad too Biblical for our tastes with its thees and hasts but does manage to give a more vivid impression of the troubled night Xerxes has and the appearance of the mysterious figure (his father’s spirit? A God? His conscience? Or the embodiment of Fate?). De Selincourt manages to conjure up a bed in his version where there is none in the original and Macaulay’s translation  is again more accurate and straightforward rather than a gloss for the sake of ‘continuity’

The last sentence also demonstrates a certain license that De Selincourt displays with the original Greek and even though it is less clunky perhaps than our Victorian scholar, there is a certain loss of accuracy. Translation has this constant tightrope trick to pull off, stage management versus dry accuracy, content and form, pace and flow and which elements of the architecture that need to be sacrificed in order to effect that pace. I hope I have managed to give you a little insight into how Herodotus is approached in translation by different scholars and the decisions that they have made in order to render the best possible vision of the Greek historian for the audience of their own time.

I haven’t read theTom Holland translation but it would interesting to find out (if there is a preface of any sort) why he thought it was time for a new translation of Herodotus and what exactly his approach was in making the historian newly relevant and alive to a new generation of readers and perhaps future scholars.

I look forward to seeing you all on the 29th of this month for further musings on the revered Halicarnassian.

It might be a touch early but…

A Merry Saturnalia to all!


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Further Visions - The Anger of Xerxes

As per previous post, I will start off with presenting an excerpt of the Histories in the form of a transliteration of the original Greek, followed by Macaulay’s take on it and then De Sélincourt with some comments on the passage to round off the excerpt.

Here then we have an excerpt from Book VII Polymnia (7.11.1) where Xerxes reacts in fury to the advice of his father’s brother Artabanus, who has just prior to this passage advised in a rather eloquent speech against such an ill-starred enterprise as the invasion of Greece.

‘Artabanos men tauta elexe, Xerxes de thumotheis ameibetai toiside. ‘’ Artabane, patros eis tou emou adelphos: touto se rusetai medena axion misthon labein epeon mataion. Kai toi tauten ten atimien prostithemi eonti kakoi kai athumoi, mete sustrateuesthai emoige epi ten Hellada autou gunaiksi: ego de kai aneu seo hosa per eipa epitelaea poieso.’’

 ‘Artabanos thus spoke; and Xerxes enraged by it made answer as follows: ‘’ Artabanos, thou art my father’s brother, and this shall save thee from receiving any recompense such as thy foolish words deserve. Yet, I attach to thee this dishonour, seeing that thou art a coward and spiritless, namely that thou do not march with me against Hellas, but remain here together with the women; and I, even without thy help, will accomplish all the things which I said.’

De Selincourt:
‘Xerxes was exceedingly angry. ‘Artabanus, ‘he replied, ‘you are my father’s brother, and that alone saves you from paying the price your empty and ridiculous speech deserves. But your cowardice and lack of spirit shall not escape disgrace: I forbid you to accompany me on my march to Greece – you shall stay at home with the women, and everything I spoke of I shall accomplish without help from you.’

De Selincourt, as I noted in the previous post is characteristically lean and taut, and here even lops off the framing device of ‘Artabanos men tauta elexe’ getting straight to the essence of the text, leaving nothing important out but definitely trimming the frills. Macaulay clearly comes from an age when frills were not only left in; they were enjoyed for their own sake as part of the poetry and grandeur that was no doubt felt to pervade the texts of the revered ancients.

 Perhaps we have become a bit less precious as each decade ‘ups the ante’ and modernises (‘soups up’ even) Herodotus, but are we in danger of losing something when we trim and sharpen up the resolution for a modern palate? Could there be an argument for leaving some of the Victorian/Edwardian paintwork in?’ What I am hinting at is where the endpoint of translations might be – if there can be such a place- is there a point where like an elastic band the ancient text can be stretched until it risks breaking any link of resemblance to the original. Of course, to a certain extent a translation can be regarded as a separate work in its own right but there should still remain some link, however tenuous, to the original. I don’t think that by any means with the two visionaries presented here that we are anywhere near that point, but with, say War Music of Christopher Logue one could start to make the argument that it’s no longer a version of an ancient text. For the non Greek or Latin reader does it or should it really matter anyway?

To be sure, each successive epoch possesses its especially peculiar textual/literary foibles of which its embedded inhabitants can never be fully cognisant. That this is both a curse and a blessing can be in no doubt. The Macaulay text, paradoxically (due to its usual faithfulness and accuracy) often partially redacts or bowdlerises passages that offended the moral sensitivities of his day. The notorious fart of the Egyptian rebel Amasis in Book II (162.3) (as a reply to the summons of Apries his erstwhile master), perfunctorily dealt with in De Selincourt, is glossed over by our Victorian scholar as an unmentionable act, ‘When this Patarbemis came and summoned Amasis, the latter, who happened to be sitting on horseback, lifted up his leg and behaved in an unseemly manner,’.

De Selincourt, for the record renders this as ‘Amasis however, in answer to Patarbemis’ summons, stood up in his stirrups (for he was on horseback at the time), broke wind and told him to take that back to his master.’

Finally, A.D.Godley in the 1920 Harvard Loeb Series translation has this as 'When Patarbemis came up and summoned Amasis, Amasis (who was on horseback) rose up and farted, telling the messenger to take that back to Apries'

 I wonder how future ages will view the De Selincourt (which has already started to fade a little) or the most recent effort of Tom Holland.

By way of conclusion, there are certainly many good things to be said about both visions and they also have quite different potential applications; Macaulay is better (marginally) when working on the original Greek. His prose is much more faithful to the original word order, grammatical constructions (he often seeks out and provides exact equivalents) and the style despite (or possibly because of) its archness plays a certain and not altogether unpleasant cadence upon the ear. It may also matter depending on how you initially experienced Herodotus – As a student I read parts of the Greek first, then the De Selincourt translation (When reading at speed for Ancient History essays) and then much later on the Macaulay when looking at the texts comparatively.  Therefore I have a soft spot for De Sélincourt but that does not lessen my admiration in any way for Macaulay’s masterful if somewhat ornate to modern ears rendering. ‘It’s all good’ as the Classics geek might say!


Sunday, 1 December 2013

Travels with Justin

I got hold of a book I had been on the hunt after for some time. I finally managed to track it down in Marylebone Public Library up near Regents Park, which for a lunchtime mission from my workplace in Mayfair was no mean feat - there and back in under an hour on foot.

The Tome in question is 'The Man Who Invented History - Travels with Herodotus' by Justin Marozzi. I had seen some decent reviews of this 2008 publication and wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. Its early days yet as I have only just started it but I immediately noted and approved of his reference to the Plutarch essay (De Malignitate Herodoti). Here is a brief quote where Justin is talking about the essay:

' With every page of this fantastically unpleasant little volume, Plutarch plunges the dagger further in. 'The Malice in Herodotus is certainly less chafing and gentler than that in Theopompus, but it takes better hold and bites deeper, like winds that come as draughts through cracks compared with those that blow in the open.' With an entertaining if unintentional irony, Plutarch launches repeated broadsides against a dead man he accuses of 'mean and partisan attacks'.

I have a feeling that Justin might approve of my previous efforts to right the balance!

By the way next week will be the last of this first years LEGENDUM and I was thinking of getting together to celebrate. I know it hasn't been a year exactly but it feels as though we have all made it work together and we should all give ourselves a libation of something nice to drink and a pat on the back. I was thinking of the Inn at the top of Norman Road..let me know if you have any interesting suggestions and perhaps we can finalise something when we meet next Sunday.

Until then

Hail Herodotus!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Two Visions of Herodotus

I have been reading through the Herodotus using two translations and it’s interesting to compare the styles. The two translators, George Campbell Macaulay (1852-1915) and Aubrey De Sélincourt (1894-1962) are placed either side of the modern age – the end of the 19th and the early 20th Century. It struck me that these men might have put something of the times they lived in into the vision of Herodotus they created through their scholarship.

 Macaulay was a Classical scholar and Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge in the 1880s and went on to be Assistant Master at Rugby School and after that an academic post at the University of Wales. In sum then, apart from a short sojourn on the continent, Macaulay passed a relatively uneventful life as a scholar and schoolmaster.
 De Sélincourt was also a noted Classicist, winning a Classics scholarship to University College, Oxford in 1913. But De Selincourt, born in an era of political upheaval and conflict as well as incredible social and economic change, seems to have led a much more colourful and eventful life, serving in WW1 as a pilot and spending a period of the conflict as a POW. He retired in 1947 to focus on his writing and managed to publish a number of well received books on the Classics theme, most notably his The World of Herodotus. Here was a man who had experienced war first hand and tasted much of the turbulence of his times at very close quarters.
I have taken a few short extracts from Book VII, first the Greek (in alphabetic rendering in case you don’t have the fonts installed – I had a weird time doing this since it feels easier to read in the Greek and to transcribe was actually quite an odd thing to do, almost against instinct – it has an added difficulty that in alphabet one is forced to make choices which don’t always accurately reflect the original, still!), then Macaulay’s take on the section followed by De Sélincourt and finally some comparative notes. I will look at one set per post. 
Here, we have the beginning of Book VII (aka Polymnia), 7.1.1, which tells of Darius' anger and increased desire to punish Greece for its crimes against his realm.

‘Epei de angelie apiketo peri tes maches en Marathoni genomenes para Basilea Dareion to Hystareos, kai prin megalos kecharagmenon toisi Athenaioisi dia ten es Sardis esbolen, kai de kai tote polloi te deinotera epoiee kai mallon hormeto strateuesthai epi ten Hellada.’
Macaulay (1890):
‘Now when the report came to Dareios the son of Hystapes of the battle which was fought at Marathon, the king, who even before this had been greatly exasperated with the Athenians on account of the attack made upon  Sardis, then far more than before displayed indignation, and was far more desirous of making a march against Hellas.’

De Sélincourt (1954):

‘When the news of the battle of Marathon reached Darius, son of Hystaspes and king of Persia, his anger against Athens, already great enough on account of the assault on Sardis, burst out still more violently, and he was more than ever determined to make war on Greece.’

 You can see immediately here that the Macaulay sounds a bit stiff to the modern ear and that De Selincourt has managed to tighten the prose up, losing nothing of the original but managing to give the section pace and impact.
In particular, compare ’the battle which was fought at Marathon’ , which is closer to the original Greek  tes maches en Marathoni genomenes’, with ‘the battle of Marathon’ of De Selincourt. Already simpler, Leaner, tighter and losing that late Victorian archness. De Sélincourt introduces the more politically loaded term 'assault' for mere ‘attack’, the former word smacks of the trenches and one can almost sense a whiff of modernity entering the text.. Note too how De Selincourt has structured the phrases and put them together, with the assault on Sardis, the primary and original cause of the Persian’s king’s ire, right in the middle of the long sentence, chopped up and segued neatly into each other with minimum fuss. The phrasing itself has the lean verve of a military disciplined action.
With Macaulay’s initial opening with 'Now’ as well as such ornate terminology as ‘exasperated’ and ‘desirous’, surely we are in a pre-modern age where the theatre of world war has not yet imposed its urgency on words. It’s almost as if the 1954 version is bringing us the immediacy of a war council – sounding very familiar to us moderns. Whereas Macaulay’s treatment makes the passage seem like a noble and flowery legend, where battles were fought at a gentler pace with a certain delicacy. De Sélincourt prose seems to cut through all that and bring Herodotus into sharper focus and give it a modernist immediacy – an impossible feat to pull off before 1915 surely.
On the other hand the Macaulay still manages to retain a sense of what Herodotus must really have sounded like to his audience/readership. I have mentioned before the fact that Herodotus wrote in ( and most probably spoke in) Ionic Greek which has a certain archaism to it – maybe not as’ Elizabethan’ as Lucian would have it, but at least the effect that say, a lecture on the Iraq Conflict in the style of Edward Gibbon might have on us today.
In my next post I will look at some other sections.

Friday, 15 November 2013

De Malignitate Herodoti

(or the frequency of  ‘I don’t Heart Herodotus’ T-Shirts in later antiquity)

What’s going here then? I thought everyone loved Herodotus.

Of course we do because we are members of Legendum and by implication basically wild nutters about anything remotely Classics related. And yet here we have another of my favourite Classical authors, Plutarch (46-120 AD) apparently penning such poisonous absurdities as ‘The Malice of Herodotus’ as part of a collection of moral essays, no less. It creates the image of the ancient world equivalent of a member of the social elite asking (forgive me for paraphrasing the barrister in the famous Lady Chatterley Trial), “Would you let your house-slave read this book?!’ The question no doubt would have been a much more pertinent one if, gods forbid; your slave was an eastern barbarian. In short Herodotus was batting for the wrong side. In other words a philobarbaros – a lover of barbarians (non-Greeks).

It is clear that, although the historians after Herodotus (484-425 BC) were heavily indebted (some acknowledged others not so openly) to his pioneering work, there was a considerable amount of polemic aimed at the man himself and his historical method. Such was the reward for a historian who had practically lit the fuse of the new genre of local history in his sleep (well, after his death in fact!).

Ctesias of Cnidus (5thC BC) in his work Persica claimed to base his work on local native records and constantly contradicted Herodotus, calling him a ‘peddler of myths’. In the Hellenistic era, both Hecataeus of Abdera (4th C BC) and Manetho(3rd C BC) wrote histories as a counter to what they considered as false or misleading history concocted by their predecessor.

The critical pot shots (with the notable exceptions of the later Republic era figures of Dionysius of Halicarnassus 60BC-7AD, Cicero 106-43BC and Quintilian 35-100AD) were more or less constant right through antiquity, Plutarch being one of the more prominent detractors, and it isn’t until later in the Renaissance where the father of history starts to receive some remedial attention culminating in his re-enthronement today. It goes without saying that he is still subject to and worthy of further dissection and investigation but moral castigation?

The essay, addressed to Alexander (whether the Alexander, in a mock rhetorical exercise or an Alexander, a friend or colleague, Alexander of Cotyaeion (d.150AD) the philologist roughly contemporary with Plutarch, I have so far been unable to ascertain) is a tour de force of attacks upon Herodotus’ style, his faults as a historian and some ad hominem remarks arising from Plutarch’s fury at his history  for displaying an anti Corinthian, anti-Athenian and generally anti-Greek bias. Plutarch is not new to this kind of polemical essay as evidenced by his other works Adversus Colotem and De Stoicorum Rupugnantiis. It has been suggested that the form of the essay mimics the genre of judicial rhetoric and indeed legal terms do make their appearance (diabole, kategoreo, martureo etc) but this is common as an example of forensic language when ancient historians and commentators want to deal with their theme and make a case either for or against. But rather than a mere exercise in rhetoric, I do get the impression that the moralist means it in this instance - he would have been too emotionally involved and in the case of Corinth too partisan not to have been.
The De Malignitate as a whole is aware of Herodotus’ work as a unified and more or less linear narrative (albeit with switchback railways) and in structure follows the book in order. Its starts with notes on Book I (The Abduction of Io 865E-857A Hdt.1.1-5) through to the episode of the absence of the traitorous soldiers from some Hellenic allies at the battle of Plataea in Book IX (872F, Hdt.9.85). Strangely, there are no comments on Book IV.

He starts off as many professional hatchet jobs often do, with apparent praise of his target. Herodotus’’ Histories are described as being, ‘simple, free and easily suiting itself to its subject’ and the author as ‘an acute writer, his style is pleasant, there is a certain, force, and elegancy in his narrations’. But this is only to build the target up and come crashing down like a sack of olives on top of him:- Herodotus ‘ pretends to simplicity’ or is ‘really most malicious’ and we are told by Plutarch that ‘his other lies and fictions would have need of many books.’

Plutarch’s attitude to historians has a strong moral dimension informed by Plato’s ideas on education. His comment on the writing of history in his life of Cimon is noteworthy:

‘Since it is difficult, or rather perhaps impossible to display a man’s life as pure and blameless, we should fill out the truth to give a likeness where the good points lie, but regard the errors and follies with which emotion or political necessity sullies a career as deficiencies in some virtue rather than displays of viciousness, and therefore not make any special effort to draw attention to them in record. Our attitude should be one of modest shame on behalf of human nature, which never produces unmixed good or a character of undisputed excellence’ (Translation: Russell)

All this moral outrage reaches a crescendo around the midpoint of the essay and we can easily envisage the consummate essayist and Greek über patriot starting to foam at the mouth when he comes to the infamous episode of the 300 would be castration victims of the tyrant of Corinth, Periander, the city which, Plutarch tells us, Herodotus has ‘bespattered .. with a most filthy crime and most shameful calumny’. For Plutarch, this is not mere run of the mill shit stirring; it is nothing less than spraying the stuff all over the city walls!

To give a brief synopsis the Corinthian tyrant Periander had sent 300 boys, sons to the leading men of Corcyra to King Alyattes to be gelded, the boys luckily ended up sailing first to the island Samos where the Samians gave them sanctuary and saved their skins…and presumably juvenile balls into the bargain. This apparently infuriated the Corinthians who accordingly as revenge decided to aid the Spartans in their later attack on the Samians. Plutarch takes any accusatory rumour involving a Greek city state as a personal slight. He is well known as a hyper patriot and there is nothing that lights his fuse more easily than a rumour or piece of hearsay relating to Greek double dealing, treachery or downright scummy behavior – unfortunately it’s just this kind of sordid microtale that Herdodotus loves to pepper his Histories with. It is the dirty diesel fuel that throbs deep down in the boiler room of the Herodotus’s text, motoring the macro level story along of how the East and West came to grips and how a bunch of disparate and paranoid Greek statelets put their differences aside (until 431 BC that is) and managed to pull off one of the greatest victories in world history, literally saving the Fifth Century Greek world.
 It would take Thucydides to recount the sequel to this story of how this world, recently united against the Persian peril, proceeded to eviscerate itself over 27 years of bloody and confused internal conflict. Thucydides, a new breed of leaner and sharper political historian, could see how Herodotus may have foreshadowed the future with the seeds of all this through his strangely ambiguous and haphazard meandering investigations. But for Plutarch the seeds are definitely poisonous ones.

The great difference between the two writers is that Herodotus likes his history warts and all, spicy and ambiguous – and for me this makes his work that of an incredibly prescient and modern historian, constantly able to renew its urgency as a text and remind us of the dangers of the embedded approach which is more Plutarch’s line. You get the feeling that anything negative about Greeks or their heroes, regardless of whether or not it may be factually true – should never make it into the record. We still suffer from this suspect kind of history today (You might call it the curse of Kissinger) – you only have to look at any ‘official’ authorised US Military history of the 20th CVietnam/Indochina conflict to know the truth of that. If Herodotus, this ‘pleasant and cunning scoffer of a writer’ had been writing about the Cold War in the way that he does about the Persian Wars, he would definitely have been berated as ‘un-American’ and ‘off-message’. Plutarch is of course right to point out factual inaccuracies and by Zeus there are numerous instances in the Histories as well as a cornucopia of non-sequiturs, dead ends and other goofs, but for giving a more rounded account of events, with all of the mosaic-like reportage pro and anti, surely he is unfairly characterized as

 he who has collected and recorded the fart of Amasis, the coming of the thief’s asses and the giving of bottles…cannot seem to have omitted these gallant acts and these remarkable sayings (of Leonidas) by negligence and oversight, but as bearing ill-will and being unjust to some.’

This for-and-against characteristic of Herodotus lends weight to another important overarching theme of his work, that of the moral dimension of deed and actors on the stage of history when faced with momentous choices and their own fate (often inescapable). The heroes and heroines (for let us note in passing that there are quite a number of active female figures throughout the history and barbarian at that!) come across as all the more authentic as a result and I would argue more rather than less moral. There are moments of cowardice, good and bad deeds in the same man or woman – all of human inconsistency and self-doubt is there in The Histories.

Plutarch makes the common error of many conservative patriots, confusing high morality with the public persona of his Greek heroes (the women are of course doing their duty at home!); offering us the essentially massaged heavily redacted version of character in contrast to Herodotus’ more compromised and thus more human figures. It is in fact Plutarch who encourages us into potential moral error should we paint too bright a picture of history’s victors. The embedded versus the independent historian has its roots in this battle between Plutarch and Herodotus (in its turn prefigured by the earlier debate in the Republic between philosophy and poetry or as Plato would describe it 'imitation') and still rages in academia today, not only about modern events but those of the ancient world as well. It still matters and so too does Herodotus for this very reason.

The moral essayist ends with his famous caveat which has come to stand as his signal red flag to those in danger of being seduced by Herodotus’ smooth style..’But as in roses we must be aware of the venomous insects called cantharides;so must we take heed of the calumnies and envy lying hidden under smooth and well couched phrases and expressions, lest we imprudently entertain absurd and false opinions of the most excellent and greatest cities and men of Greece.

No ‘I –Heart-Herodotus’ T-Shirt for Plutarch then!

But I can’t let Plutarch have the last word and so we end this post with a quote from Book VII, Ch.152,

                 ‘I am bound to tell what I am told, but not in every case to believe it’


Monday, 11 November 2013

Herodotus - The birth of history


Thanks to all for making it on Sunday. It was very enjoyable and I feel we got a lot out of the mental effects of The Illiad as the reader interacts with this great epic work. I hope we will come back to Homer at a later time to investigate the Odyssey with the same level of passionate enquiry and enthusiasm. A level of intense and curious investigation that Herodotus himself I am sure have heartily approved of. Below is a list of the sections we agreed to focus on for the next gathering of chariots which will be on the 8th of next month. I will post in more detail on Herodotus and his work in due course but for now the list and some book/page references. The references are in relation to the Penguin Classics edition of the Selincourt translation so may not be of much use but you might be able to flick through and find these gems. As always if you can find different translations do bring them along since text comparison really adds to the understanding of how different individuals through the ages have approached thus fascinating and eminently readable work.

1. Candaules and his wife. Bk.1 p.16

2. Solon and Croesus. Bk.1 p. 23 to 48

3. Rhampsinitus. Bk. 2 p. 147 to 150

4. Xerxes crosses the Hellespont. Bk. 7
 p.428 to 431

5. Egyptian funerary customs. Bk. 2 p.131 to 135

Look out for more posts soon!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Gathering of Chariots

Hello there all. I didn't quite manage to post any more on The Illiad but I got down some of the themes I wanted to broach. Other things I have been thinking as I read it are: 

1. Who or what was Homer?
2. What does the Illiad tell us about the gods and their relationship with mortals?
3. How and when was the poem put together?
4. What accounts for its endurance I'm the Western canon?

By the way, we will be meeting this Sunday the 10th of November at my place at 4 o clock. I will be texting details for those of you who want a reminder of the location.

Until then


Tuesday, 22 October 2013

KIA Death Tolls in Illiad XX

I have been reading the extremely graphic action in Book XX as Achilles finally gets into the field and unleashes his terrible wrath on the Trojans after an inconclusive exchange with Aeneas. Throughout the ages, the Iliad has been the vade mecum of many a warrior or military strategist, from Alexander up to the more recent participants of the Iraq ‘event’ of 2003 and possibly even Afghanistan with its Operation ‘Achilles’ against Taliban enclaves. It is probably a fruitless exercise to try to decide whether Homer (whoever he was individually or collectively over time) was pro or anti war (I suspect the best answer would be- both) – but the death/carnage scenes impress me with two things, one is their graphically detailed, almost anatomically surgical presentation – the other is their literary function in the work as a whole. I was struck by this when I first read sections of the epic many years ago, I suspect I found it quite exhilarating and exciting and didn’t delve too much into the futility and horror of war tropes that Homer also masterfully hints at. What is the detail for I wondered? Perhaps it is for the vicarious pleasure of the readers or descendants of the slayers revelling in the destruction of the loser and following Achilles vaunts with a hearty cheer like football fans when their side scores a goal? Or for the descendants of the victims who wanted closure in knowing exactly how their hero and the founder of their city/deme died? Maybe it acted as a mnemonic so that the bard/s could recall the section more easily with stand out gory details like this. The first to fall is Ophition – compared with the slaughters that follow, a relatively clean felling:

‘First he killed Iphition son of Otrynteus, a leader of many people whom a naiad nymph had borne to Otrynteus waster of cities, in the district [dêmos] of Hyde under the snowy heights of Mount Tmolos. Achilles struck him full on the head as he was coming on towards him, and split it clean in two; whereon he fell heavily to the ground and Achilles vaunted over him saying, "You be low, son of Otrynteus, mighty hero; your death is here, but your lineage is on the Gygaean lake where your father's estate lies, by Hyllos, rich in fish, and the eddying waters of Hermos.’

Note the vaunt over the fallen dead. It’s not quite urinating on the body of the defeated but here we see the ritualized taunting of the slain enemy, contrasting the aristocrat’s high estate in life, his lineage and wealth with his split corpse lying on the dust at Achilles sandaled feet. This taunting is an intrinsic feature of Homeric combat and confrontation scenes – the verbal squaring up (see Aeneas before as well as Hector) before and after combat.

It is found in a lot of epic military literature – I have been reading a Japanese medieval war chronicle (The Taiheiki 13-14th C AD) and in the course of the many battle encounters, great warriors have their speeches and taunts before they launch into action to become slayer and slain. Meanwhile back in the Iliad, Demeleon and others bite the dust:

‘Achilles killed Demoleon, a valiant man of war and son to Antenor. He struck him on the temple through his bronze-cheeked helmet. The helmet did not stay the spear, but it went right on, crushing the bone so that the brain inside was shed in all directions, and his lust of fighting was ended.’

‘Then he struck Hippodamas in the midriff as he was springing down from his chariot in front of him, and trying to escape. He breathed his last, bellowing like a bull bellows when young men are dragging him to offer him in sacrifice to the King of Helike, and the heart of the earth-shaker is glad; even so did he bellow as he lay dying.’

The detail ratchets up a notch, Homer literally follows the trajectory of the death blow through to its gory conclusion and we also have a vivid image in the Hippodamas’ death scene of the intense and very realistic suffering of a stomach/chest wound – the horror as the fallen warrior dies and the extreme agony and suffering expressed by the simile of the sacrificial Bull bellowing in fear, suffering and outraged agony at his fate. Achilles is just getting into his stride now and his bloodlust is well and truly up:

‘Achilles then went in pursuit of Polydoros son of Priam, whom his father had always forbidden to fight because he was the youngest of his sons, the one he loved best, and the fastest runner. He, in his folly and showing off the excellence [aretê] of his speed, was rushing about among front ranks until he lost his life, for Achilles struck him in the middle of the back as he was darting past him: he struck him just at the golden fastenings of his belt and where the two pieces of the double breastplate overlapped. The point of the spear pierced him through and came out by the navel, whereon he fell groaning on to his knees and a cloud of darkness overshadowed him as he sank holding his entrails in his hands.’

The detail extends to a technical knowledge of the armour and I think it’s these little touches that prove the lie to those commentators who try to picture Homer as an armchair warrior. The detail, wherever it has come from (either Homer or embellishments as the long epic developed and was improved as it was handed down from generation to generation of bard) shows an uncommon intimacy with the equipment that the warrior went into the field with. A lesser poet could have got away with a more imaginative gloss but this touch makes the description extremely realistic and conveys a layer of authenticity rarely found in other epic poetry. In the next round of attacks, Achilles fells Drypos and Demoukhos, Laogonos and Dardonos one after another, almost as an afterthought..very swift and with minimum fuss – ‘clean kills’ as the modern terminology would have it.

‘On this he struck Dryops with his spear, about the middle of his neck, and he fell headlong at his feet. There he let him lie and stayed Demoukhos son of Philetor, a man both brave and of great stature, by hitting him on the knee with a spear; then he smote him with his sword and killed him. After this he sprang on Laogonos and Dardanos, sons of Bias, and threw them from their chariot, the one with a blow from a thrown spear, while the other he cut down in hand-to-hand fight.’

And most movingly and tragically, the pitiful and pitiable death of Tros – his name symbolic, prefiguring the merciless destruction of the city of Troy, an act that was outside the scope of Iliad but a theme which Virgil takes up with consummate artistry and empathy in his epic the Aeneid.

‘There was also Tros the son of Alastor - he came up to Achilles and clasped his knees in the hope that he would spare him and not kill him but let him go, because they were both of the same age. Fool, he might have known that he should not prevail with him, for the man was in no mood for pity or forbearance but was in grim earnest. Therefore when Tros laid hold of his knees and sought a hearing for his prayers, Achilles drove his sword into his liver, and the liver came rolling out, while his bosom was all covered with the black blood that welled from the wound. Thus did death close his eyes as he lay lifeless.’

 This scene is especially tragic and emphasizes the hubris that Achilles displays in not giving quarter to the supplicant fellow noble warrior, and the pathetic image of the defenceless victim hugging the knees of the victor begging vainly for his life. How many times must this actual scene have played out in all wars through all the ages? I always find this scene/image very moving and it sticks in my mind as a passage where Homer starkly underlines the great tragedy and cruelty of war. But Achilles has no time for such indulgences as pity when he is full attack mode and moves on to his next hapless targets.

 ‘Achilles then went up to Moulios and struck him on the ear with a spear and the bronze spear-head came right out at the other ear. He also struck Echeklos son of Agenor on the head with his sword, which became warm with the blood, while death and stern fate closed the eyes of Echeklos. Next in order the bronze point of his spear wounded Deukalion in the fore-arm where the sinews of the elbow are united, whereon he waited Achilles' onset with his arm hanging down and death staring him in the face. Achilles cut his head off with a blow from his sword and flung it helmet and all away from him and the marrow came oozing out of his backbone as he lay. He then went in pursuit of Rhigmos, noble son of Peires, who had come from fertile Thrace, and struck him through the middle with a spear which fixed itself in his belly, so that he fell headlong from his chariot. He also speared Areithoos squire [therapôn] to Rhigmos in the back as he was turning his horses in flight, and thrust him from his chariot, while the horses were struck with panic’

Moulios gets his head skewered; Deukalion is rendered non-combatant by hamstringing the arm (if that’s the correct term) and then promptly decapitated. Not only that but we have the fantastically gory image of the marrow oozing out of the spinal column post-beheading. Wild stuff!! The descriptions again show anatomical (black or red blood depending on where it issued from) knowledge or at least field experience either first hand or from men that had seen combat and could inform the workings of the epic as it was created and later embellished.

I wonder if the epic (Mark 1 for arguments sake) started out fairly heroic but relatively non gory and the ‘details’ were added by successive generations of war-experienced audiences as they sought more vivid and evocative detail with which to improve the telling and retelling of the epic as it was sung at the wine-soaked hearth fires of great lords and warriors in successive and increasingly war-like ages to come.

Prowess in battle and the recording of heroic acts is nothing new or unique of course, but the point I am making in this post lies in Homer’s (unique level of detail I would offer) attention to combat detail. I think it’s unique to Homer but I may be wrong. If you know of any other epic that has a similar level of detail and demonstrably not a distant ancestor of Homer – let me know. As I have done earlier with the medieval Japanese war literature (gunki monogatari), you may have to leave Europe to find it.

Hopefully I will recover from all this excitement and get back to with some more commentary on XXI.


How did ancient Greek Music sound?

Check out this interesting article about how Greek music and Homer recitation may have sounded.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Painshill Grotto

I went to a conference last week at Painshill Park in Surrey called Gardens of Association about garden buildings in 18th Century landscape gardens. Painshill is a mid-18th Century pictorial circuit garden orientated around a central lake. It has a series of different buildings: a Gothic Temple, a ruined abbey, a Turkish Tent, a Mausoleum, a Gothic Tower, but most spectacularly a Crystal Grotto. The restoration of the Grotto has recently been completed, and the conference was partly a celebration of this. The second day of the conference included a presentation on the origins of Grottoes in 18th Century gardens and guess what, the origin is classical!

Wendy Monkhouse, a curator at the National Trust who was involved in the restoration, started her presentation by saying: "Homer is the foundation on which 18th Century Grotto making rests." So, first you have Calypso's Grotto and then the Cave of Polyphemus. The Emperor Tiberius had a huge grotto at Sperlonga in Italy which was formed in a vast natural cave. It was full of statues including this extraordinary one of Odysseus and his men blinding Polyphemus.

Apparently he used to entertain there and on one occasion rocks began to rain down on the guests. Most people ran for it, but Sejanus threw himself on top Tiberius which helped cement his position.

Equally important as an influence was Virgil's Aenied, in particular Dido's cave. There are several of these in gardens in the UK.

The conference ended with a visit to the Grotto and it is wonderful. It was made even more watery by the fact that it was pouring with rain at the time. Here are a couple of images.

Well worth a visit (only don't leave at 5pm on a Friday as it takes forever to get back to Hastings)!

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Its all Greek to Thee, Homeric Attic, Ionic and SP

Firstly, I would like to thank all present at the last gathering where we discussed Ovid. As usual we managed to cover extensive and unusual ground. I have had my eyes opened to Ovid and will certainly read more of his work both in translation and the original for the imagery and language alone is quite stunning and really sticks in the mind. As I rather bluntly exclaimed during the session (at a moment lost for words presumably!) ‘There are some good words here!’ Yes, well onto other matters – in fact the matter of Greek! And there is not just one sort of ancient Greek but quite a few as it turns out. Each has their own peculiar characteristics and distinctive style.

We will be looking at books XX-XXIII of Homer’s great Epic work the Iliad, which tells the story of the ‘wrath of Achilles’ and the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. The language of Homers works differs from the ancient Greek I started out with at school (Attic Greek) and is aptly named Homeric Greek, details of which you can find here.

I might try and declaim some Homeric – don’t worry, I will keep it short but it might be fun to have a go at reading the Greek aloud – just for the pure theatre and atmosphere. I was not exposed to Homer as set texts until A Level and after a few years of Attic and some scattered fragments of Ionic – it did indeed strike me as quite different in its sound and orthography.

As I have said, the student of ancient Greek normally starts off with Attic Greek and learns the language as well as encounters most of the common greats of Greek literature, the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the comedy of Aristophanes and the historical writings on the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides. You can find more information on the peculiarities of Attic Greek here. Rightly or wrongly then we come to view Attic as the standard ancient Greek for the height of the classical period (with the exceptions of Late Greek and regional variations within the Greek speaking world or koine period (Hellenistic world in particular).

Last but not least is Ionic Greek, which is the language of Herodotus (as far as students of ancient Greek history are concerned). The later version known as New Ionic had appeal as a sort of bridge version between the Homeric form and Attic Greek, with which it holds certain affinities (you can see more details on Ionic here.) I note that some translators of Lucian where he writes for effect (archaic effect) (at least in the earlier Loeb Classical Library of Harvard Press) try to leave the translated ionic Greek in an equivalent attitude in the English so we have a translation deliberately in the style of Sir Philip Sydney or possibly mid Elizabethan prose. I am not sure if this works – but it’s an interesting point as to how we treat works in earlier forms of ancient Greek. If we put all of the works regardless of their position in the ancient canon into the same or similar modern English, it makes for good reading but perhaps we lose some of the effect that it must have had on ancient readers. So a sophisticated reader of Aristophanes age may have found Herodotus quite baroque and stiff or even alien sounding. I am not sure how to square the circle with this one though since any affected style imposed upon the ancient work will quickly date or lose relevance so perhaps it’s better to translate into as clear as possible a medium for the purpose of clear comprehension and readability hence enjoyment.

On a final note, I have deliberately not posted any text in actual ancient Greek. The reason is that your computer may not be able to render it. If you do not have the font for ancient Greek (called SPIonic Font), you can go here and download a free version. It’s very quick and easy to install and there are Mac and PC version of the download and full instructions. Once you have installed that in your font folder, the computer or device you have should automatically read any Greek posted up. I will recap on this when we next meet. I am off to read book XXI! I will post again soon re these books of the Iliad.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Orpheus :don't look now- success or failure?

Much of the literature which recreates the myth focuses attention on the point when Orpheus turns to look at Eurydice on their journey back to the land of the living. It is most often described as a mistake or failure, or as the result of an overwhelming compulsion, a rush of longing which leads to the fatal error.
 This suggests that the myth is about human frailty, that the really satisfactory outcome would have been the reinstatement of Eurydice in the land of the living.
Yet the words mistake and failure sit oddly in the context of a myth which asserts the incontrovertible fact that death is immutable. If, however, one reads the myth as if it were a dream in which different emotions and thoughts can be made manifest with a simultaneity which is not possible to the conscious mind, an alternative interpretation becomes available.
We must all be familiar with the fantasy of reconstructing the past with a different outcome. This is a vehicle for expressing regret, responsibility for some disaster, (whether it was actually within ones control or not) and loss. It also provides temporary relief from consciousness of the reality of trauma. Orpheus' journey to the Underworld, his use of his great talent ( his intrinsic identity) to overcome the normal boundaries for humans is a fantasy of this kind.
It is however essential to survival and to recovery from trauma that such fantasies do not persist, but that there is a ' therapeutic return to reality'. The looking back by Orpheus is then the pivotal point of the myth where he makes this jump from fantasy to recognition of reality, and he experiences it with all the intensity of the original event. This again is familiar to us: the return to reality is made unwillingly by the conscious mind and is experienced as shock.
It is essential to the success of the change of consciousness that the process is concealed from the subject, otherwise one would, and does, resist it powerfully. The mechanism therefore appears in disguise as the  condition which Hades imposes and Orpheus flouts.
Thus, in the midst of his determination to rescue Eurydice,one might say that ' in another part of his mind', he knows he cannot undo the past and overcome death. The overwhelming compulsion that he feels is the reinstatement of reality to his consciousness.
I think one of the reasons why the myth has retained its power over time is that hi has so much to reach us about grief and survival of loss. We learn that fantasy plays an essential part in the assimilation of loss and that a return to reality is necessary to recovery.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

In his own words

These lines from the early part of book X give a little idea of the incredible felicity with words and technique that Ovid displays with such seeming ease. Reading the Metamorphoses aloud to enraptured company or to oneself in a quiet bower shaded arbor or in the lamplight of your poor insula room, must have been as engrossing and enjoyable as it is today. See you all tomorrow… 

‘quam satis ad superas postquam Rhodopeius auras
deflevit vates, ne non temptaret et umbras,
ad Styga Taenaria est ausus descendere porta
perque leves populos simulacraque functa sepulcro
Persephonen adiit inamoenaque regna tenentem              
umbrarum dominum pulsisque ad carmina nervis
sic ait: 'o positi sub terra numina mundi,
in quem reccidimus, quicquid mortale creamur,
si licet et falsi positis ambagibus oris
vera loqui sinitis, non huc, ut opaca viderem             
Tartara, descendi, nec uti villosa colubris
terna Medusaei vincirem guttura monstri:
causa viae est coniunx, in quam calcata venenum
vipera diffudit crescentesque abstulit annos.
posse pati volui nec me temptasse negabo:              
vicit Amor.’

Metamorphoses Liber X 11-25

Friday, 20 September 2013

Southern (Italian) Death Cults - Orphism

The Southern (Italian) Death Cults – yes, I am talking about Orphic Mysteries

Thurii crops up quite a bit in the reading I have been doing on Orphism and early mystery cults in the ancient Mediterranean. There were a number of excavations there and tombs dated to 300 B.C that contained votive leaves with inscription in Greek to Orpheus which the dead would presumably carry with them on their trip in to the underworld. Why Orpheus? Well, he is right there at the start of the earliest accounts of the mapping of the ancient Greek concept of the underworld as the first mortal to make it down there (and back)on a quest for Eurydice, his love, cruelly cut down in her prime by a poisonous snake bite. Some accounts have him as the original gazetteer of the place giving the names to the four rivers of Hell.
Orphic mystery cults where initiates either see or visit the underworld undergoing a salvation or transformation of some sort go back quite a way in Greece and the Greek colonies and apart from Orpheus there are the Eleusis Cults and Dionysian Cults with which Orpheus is closely linked and often identified with (via the death and resurrection myths of Dionysus). The roots are deep in proto-Greek religion and run throughout its latter development, influencing Greek tragedy (dromeon or performance as ritual) and cropping up in Greek literature and philosophy (Plato, Myth of Er in Book X of The Republic several dialogues, Aristophanes Frogs and others).

The classic Homeric underworld seems a pretty grim place from the earliest accounts, a place of judgement (Minos and Radamanthus et aliis), the other dead mere shades of their former selves, unable to enjoy the things of life, living on blood sacrifice from the odd passing Homeric hero (Odysseus). Under Orphic influence, whose rites saw the underworld as a place of wisdom and transformation and possibility of salvation always around the corner, the underworld becomes a more fleshed out and place to be.

The dead start having lives of their own, dwelling paces, sunny fields, decent food to eat, tools and possessions – in fact it becomes a mirror of the world above, looked at through the lens of Orphic eschatology as ‘the kuklos or the circle of existence – the ultimate goal of the fully initiated to escape the wheel entirely and be reborn as the god and return to the eternal void.

 It’s here in the personal salvation aspect that Orpheus provides one of the strands available to the seeker of esoteric knowledge in the Mediterranean of the Hellenistic period and antiquity, the others being Gnosticism and Judean cults. In this crucible, Christianity, at first a rather obscure cult found an ideal breeding ground in which to hone its ideas, learn a bit from the many other esoteric/salvationist wisdom groups and creeds on offer and take advantage of the febrile zeitgeist of the 1st and 2nd Centuries and coupling that with already available existing networks of subterranean magical cults and mystery worshippers to finally adapt and thrive and ultimately take control of the spiritual reins of the pagan Roman Empire itself.

I don’t think that Ovid had much of this in mind when writing about Orpheus but was certainly aware of the many cultic practices and primitive rustic myths surrounding this Christ/Osiris like figure. Just how much Orphism/Gnosticism went into the making of early Christianity is a moot point, but certainly makes for a interesting debate.


Tuesday, 10 September 2013 - Ovid and The Metamorphoses

The next meeting is set for October 6th, where we will be looking at the Orpheus and Eurydice section from the latter part of the work. I want to look a bit closer at Orpheus, the influence this figure had in the Classical religious sphere and the cults of Orphism so this will the subject of my next post.

Ovid is an interesting poet to compare and contrast with Virgil and Lucretius, the two poets whose works we have encountered in our previous gatherings. Ovid seems incredibly musical and mellifluous almost to the point of delirium in his vivid and evocative imagery as he tries to encompass no less than the changing universe, its gods and heroes, 'of bodies changed to other forms from the beginnings of nature unto our modern age' depicting in his majestic sweep the constant flux and reflux of the fates and the beings both mortal and divine caught up in its prismatic torrents.

I slipped into the rather large bookshop in Piccadilly on the way home the other evening and treated myself to a newish translation of The Metamorphoses by A.D.Melville. So far it reads very well indeed. I am coming to the work quite fresh since it is not one I have ever really read extensively in the original (only the odd snippet) and consequently all seems to be new and vibrant..I don't know yet whether this is the newness of the work for me or the skill of the translator. I will need to look at the Latin to make a better judgement. I hope you are enjoying his whirlwind skills. Until the next post.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

A Visit to the Underworld - Aeneid Book VI - Black Sabbath riffs andother matters

The Aeneid is undoubtedly Virgil’s greatest work even despite its unfinished state at the time of his death in Greece in 19B.C. Furthermore he set in motion a romantic precedent for countless tragic artists to come when he made his deathbed request to have the entire work consigned to the flames. To continue the romantic trope, his unfaithful amanuensis fortunately ignored the request and we are forever in his debt as a result. You can’t really do much better in terms of Latin Epic than the Aeneid – although on second thoughts you could do much better in the shape of Lucan’s Pharsalia, which can certainly give Virgil a run for his money poetically and for its sheer frenzied and startlingly powerful imagery.
I happened to read Lucan in my own time outside of the school syllabus (Virgil’s Aeneid as set text) and to honest it was a much better read IMHO – it provides the flipside to the Imperial propaganda which runs through the Aeneid – where the Lucanian vision of the future Imperium is brutal, bloody and one of great destruction and horror, past present and future giving the lie to the wonderful paradise that is promised after the dust settles on Rome’s enemies within and without. I have to be honest here and say that I found Aeneas a bit  too ‘moral’ for my liking and almost a tad dorkish (perhaps like the Odyssey but with Tom Cruise in it instead of a much better but more ‘flawed’ actor and storyline).It struck my innocent schoolboy mind as all a bit too Roman Hollywood I suppose and the Pharsalia, like Tacitus is a very interesting contrast to the orchestral greatness of ‘eternal Rome the savior of all mankind’ portrayed in the Aeneid. It would be an interesting future project to contrast the two works – the light and dark sides of the Roman principate.
If the two works were rock groups, I would imagine the Aeneid as Queen’s Greatest Hits and the Pharsalia more Black Sabbath. The former quite brilliant, sparkling, flashy, erudite but a little bit shall we say…conservative and safe. Whereas with Lucan’s work we have lines like a Tony Iommi solo at 200Decibels shearing off your synapses and hammering your poetic eardrums into submission – it doesn’t pull any punches and it lowers its sophistication level knowingly for brutal effect – much like the opening riffs of Paranoid or War Pigs.
Even today listening to radio broadcasts and podcast commentaries on the Aeneid one still gets the impression that many modern readers/pundits are dazzled by the sheer magnificence of the work as poetry and as a result have swallowed the propaganda a little too much. It’s often glossed over – and since there was not such a distinction in ancient times between the roles that poetry and prose played in official and public use at the time, this becomes an even more important point, namely, to look at the works purely in aesthetic terms is at the risk of misunderstanding their real impact at the time and thus their deeper historical and political significance. I really feel that if Latin texts were taught in this way even at A Level they would be far more engaging. The fact that Virgil is presented or almost pre-presented as ‘great’ to a beginner classicist as I was at the time – it produced in me a distinct lack of genuine tangibility or engagement with the work, which was/is a great pity.

Until recently scholarship shied away from looking at Virgil’s work in this more penetrating way however it is certainly a valid point to look more closely at why the Aeneid was written and with what audience in mind. The image of Maecenas once again looms Saatchi-like out of the shadows. To be fair, Lucan (60s AD) did sort of pinch a lot of ideas from Virgil and subvert them for his own literary ends (often to great effect) but then again couldn’t it be posited that in its own way, Book VI of the Aeneid is based thematically on Greek philosophical thought relating to the afterlife and in literary terms borrows heavily from the Odyssey?
I have been reading an article from Classical Philology Vol. 67, No.1 (January 1972) by Friedrich Solmsen-The World of the Dead in Book VI of the Aeneid (JSTOR who describes the loose and shifting tripartite structure of Book VI, namely into Homeric, Moral and Philosophical parts which in turn are meant to represent the primitive, moral and rational facets of human nature. The underworld as Aeneas discovers is a place of all time, Past, Present and Future where he is guided through the horrors to meet his father and Dido once again.
These two meetings put Virgil into a new category of epic, since they succeed in humanizing and adding great realistic individual detail – this is something that doesn’t happen on quite so a personal and emotional level in the underworld meetings in the Odyssey (upon which they are based).
There are in such individualized encounters highly emotionally charged and extremely moving lines of poetry (e.g. the contrasting encounters with Anchises and Dido) which in turn inspired Dante , who used this Virgilian map of the underworld as well as the concept of the recycling of souls, in his own masterpiece of the Divine Comedy (Hell in particular, Purgatory in general). Virgil’s model of the underworld with its emphasis on generalized Judgment , punishment and justice stands in contrast to earlier Greek depictions where the retribution is meted out upon specific divine renegades. In the Aeneid, the underworld is where all humanity is judged and if good enough may eventually pass to Elysium or remain forever in Tartaros, the darkest deepest pit where dwell the original renegades against divine order and reason. You can easily see where later concepts of heaven and hell came in the later fleshing out of later medieval Christian eschatology.
The great innovation here and the groundbreaking development is that the underworld of generalized judgment we experience with Virgil is also one of individuals; the salvation or damnation of the individual soul is at stake and is brought much closer to home and sharper focus that any previous ancient description. This is just one aspect of his great genius as a poet, a truly revolutionary innovation and an exciting fresh idea appearing for the first time in Latin epic verse. Dante takes this concept much further but the essential original concept is right here in Book VI and is a remarkable new step.
In a further emotional encounter we also meet Marcellus as part of the Imperial Roman future that for him will never be, golden imperial hope and deeply mourned by all levels of society as he apparently was– again a tragic and fascinating use of telescoping time back and forth in this realm of the dead to remind Aeneas of his past and his future trials and tribulations, and ultimately his destiny of founding hero of Rome. And all this in the most exquisite hexameter verse.
Aeneas finally emerges safely from the underworld, refreshed, rebooted even and ready for anything – he is going to have to be with a warrior the likes of Turnus just around the corner and his trials far from over. See you all on Sunday to discuss this work together with book IV of the Georgics. Salve atque vale!