158. On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius, c. 50 BC

158. On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius, c. 50 BC

Plot:   Primitive atomic theory explained in poetry, or as Lucretius himself puts it: “the dulcet strains of poesy, coated with the sweet homey of the Muses .. to engage your mind while you gain insight into the nature of the universe and the pattern of its architecture” (page 54-55)

My edition is the Penguin Black Classic translated by Ronald Latham (ISBN 0140440186)

My thoughts: 

Lucretius’ work largely outlines the tenets of Epicurus – basically that we should seek a happy pleasant life without fearing death, which is the end of both body and soul, everything returning to atoms. His atomic theory is not quite in line with modern thinking; he has them whizzing around in perpetual motion in an unlimited universe. Some of his physics is also slightly awry: we see things because everything constantly emits a series of images in the nature of ‘films’ which enter our eyes and can bounce back from mirrors, pass through glass, etc.

As a physicist, Lucretius is a much better philosopher. Following Epicurean thought, he acknowledges the Gods but refuses to believe they influence our lives, as they were too busy living the good life. Mankind assigns them actions and powers in superstitious awe of what is really natural phenomena and ignorance of the causes of these.

Nor does he believe in Hell, or any sort of continuance of life after death – these too are superstitions which blight Man’s short lifespan with fear and dread. All is reduced to atoms to be recombined elsewhere. “To none is life given in freehold, to all on lease” (page 125).

He would also have been a fervent UFO watcher too, as “it is in the highest degree unlikely that this earth and sky is the only one to have been created and that all those particles of matter outside are accomplishing nothing … our world has been made by nature through the spontaneous and casual collision and the multifarious, accidental, random and purposeless congregation and coalescence of atoms whose suddenly formed combinations could serve on each occasion as the starting-point of substantial fabrics – earth and sea and sky and the races of living creatures. On every ground therefore you must admit that there exist elsewhere other congeries of matter similar to this one which the ether clasps in ardent embrace … other earths and various tribes of men and breeds of beasts.”   (pages 91-92)

Lucretius doesn’t limit himself to philosophy and physics. After asserting that heaven and earth, sun, stars and moon are not products of divine inspiration but a result of natural forces, he also writes of the creation of species (all originally down to spontaneous generation from Mother Earth) and the development of human civilization from caveman to his current time, which he admits is still in development.

Perhaps his only downfall is his dismissal of love, warning his readers to beware of its traps.

Favourite lines/passages:

LOL moment as Lucretius demonstrates that mind and spirit are both composed of matter, for “when the nerve-racking impact of a spear gashes bones and sinews, even if it does not penetrate the seat of life, there ensues faintness and a tempting inclination earthwards …”  (page 101)

But finally we should all just relax and be content, as devotees of Epicurus like Lucretius

“The requirements of our bodily nature are few indeed, no more than is necessary to banish pain. To heap pleasure upon pleasure may heighten men’s enjoyment at times. But what matter if there are no golden images of youths about the house, holding flaming torches in their right hands to illumine banquets prolonged into the night? What matter if the hall does not sparkle with silver and gleam with gold, and no carved and gilded rafters ring to the music of the lute? Nature does not miss these luxuries when men recline in company on the soft grass by a running stream under the branches of a tall tree and refresh their bodies pleasurably at small expense. Better still if the weather smiles upon them and the season of the year stipples the green herbage with flowers.”  (page 60-61)

Personal rating:  As you can see from the size and number of quotes appended above, Lucretius quite tickled my fancy. Epicurean philosophy must suit me. 6.

The reads in between: 

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. Diner cook Odd can see the dead, but can he save his girl and his hometown? Enjoyable pageturner and first volume in a series.

Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes. One of Martin Edward’s 100 classic crime stories – not so entertaining and a bit of a cheat as a whodunnit. First half is a hard slog as Innes’ Inspector Appleby is a very close-lipped, almost disinterested detective, sharing very little with the reader. The suspects are barely discernible from each other and the reveal is complicated and unlikely.

Asterix and the Big Fight by Goscinny and Uderzo. One of the best of Asterix’s adventures, largely due to the druid Getafix’s amnesia, crazy appearance, and childlike happiness as he brews explosive potions, doubled by the arrival of a second druid suffering the same affliction (ie getting flattened under a menhir thrown by Obelix!)

Next : More from Cicero.

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157. Selected letters by Cicero (68 to 43 BC)

157. Selected letters by Cicero (68 to 43 BC)

Plot:  A collection of some of Cicero’s private letters to family and friends, starting from before his exile to a few months before his death.  My version is again the Penguin Classic edition (ISBN 0140444580) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey.

My thoughts:  The first collection of letters I’ve read in this project –  and I was always told never to read other peoples’ mail, too! 😊

About half of Cicero’s letters are addressed to his good friend Atticus, a school friend who was also related by marriage (Cicero’s brother Quintus married Atticus’ sister Pomponia).

The most interesting letters are those which report or reflect on the tumultuous events happening in Rome during Cicero’s later years. Firstly Cicero is exiled according to a new law introduced by his enemies, for executing Roman citizens without trial (with regard to the Catiline conspirators discussed in an earlier post). He is eventually allowed to return to Rome but shortly after, civil war breaks out between the supporters of Pompey and Caesar. Cicero realises that his beloved Republic is doomed  – Caesar’s forces are stronger and Pompey is failing to plan or act effectively. However, Cicero feels he must honour his obligation to Pompey who helped in his return from exile (although he did little to prevent the exile in the first place)

After the dust settles, Cicero is pardoned by a victorious Caesar; but despite this, and although he was not involved in the conspiracy, Cicero gives his wholehearted praise to Brutus and Cassius (Caesar’s assassins). A year later, the long standing animosity between Cicero and Marc Antony leads to Cicero’s death as he sides with Brutus and Cassius in a further civil war against Marc Antony, the turncoat Lepidus and Caesar’s son, Octavian.

The more intimate family letters are also revealing, particularly as a inconsolable Cicero mourns the death of his  beloved daughter Tullia.

More about Cicero and the events of these years to come in future writings from Caesar himself (The Civil War), Plutarch (Parallel Lives) and Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars)

Favourite lines/passages:

“Spend time in honest, pleasant and friendly company. Nothing becomes life better, or is more in harmony with its happy living. I am not thinking of physical pleasure, but of community of life and habit and of mental recreation, of which familiar conversation is the most effective agent; and conversation is at its most agreeable at dinner-parties …. because at dinner parties more than anywhere else, life is lived in company.”    Cicero to Papirius Paetus, Jan 43 BC (page 214)

Diversions and digressions:

Without the benefits of a postal service, the Romans relied on travelling friends or slaves to deliver letters to their correspondents. Even some of Cicero’s letters admit he didn’t know where the intended recipient was actually living at the moment the letter was dispatched.

Personal rating:  Taken as a whole, probably a 5.

Next :  On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, one of the books read by Cicero. Very easy to play Six Degrees of Separation in the Ancient World.

 

156. Poems by Catullus (c. 60-55 BC)

156. Poems by Catullus (c. 60-55 BC)

Plot:  An assortment of personal poems – love and hate, sometimes together.

I had two versions available to me for Catullus :  the Penguin classic translated by Peter Whigham (0140441808)  and the Oxford World’s Classics edition by Guy Lee (0192835874)

My thoughts:

I must confess I am not a poetry fan – and the more self-indulgent and ugly the poems, the less I like them. So Catullus does not rate highly with me and I was glad to reach the last page.

Catullus is reminiscent of Sappho, in that he uses his poetry very personally to express his love, lust, anger and hate, to praise his friends and to attack his enemies. His surviving poems are numbered (with some gaps) and organised by length and style, so each poem is different from the next, and the recurrent themes (his love for ‘Lesbia’ and their turbulent affair, his dalliances with other male and female lovers, his insults and his occasional poetic correspondence to friends) are mixed throughout the volume.

Perhaps most memorable are his addresses to “Lesbia” (the Clodia attacked so scathingly by Cicero in court for her promiscuity). Catullus’ feelings for her vary from deep love, to sniping insults at her and her other lovers, to recognising he cannot help but love and hate her, desperately wishing he could rid her from his system.

With two editions to compare, it becomes very apparent that an especially beautiful phrase that captures my heart is as much courtesy of the translator as the author : compare Catullus’ ode (#4) to his favourite yacht now beached and decaying on the bank:

“drawn up here, gathering quiet age”  (Whigham)  versus  “grows old in quiet retirement” (Lee)

Both are beautiful but Whigham manages to capture something special.

As I have said before, without my own knowledge of the ancient languages, I am reliant on the skill, accuracy and fidelity of the translator; and personal taste also comes into play. Especially with Catullus’ ‘colourful’ language such as on display in #6

“attenuated thighs betray your preoccupation” (Whigham) versus the “fucked-out flanks” (Lee)

There is a small number of short epic-like poems but they lost me. The highly considered #64 starts as a marriage celebration but was overshadowed by jarring tales of death and betrayal from Greek legends : Ariadne abandoned by Theseus after she helps him kill the minotaur, the deaths and destruction during the Fall of Troy, and the unhappy tale of Oedipus.

Favourite lines/passages:

I have reproduced Whigham’s translations of poems 32, 33  and 51 below; not as favourites but to give some idea of what is representative of Catullus  

XXXII

Call me to you

at siesta

We’ll make love

my gold & jewels

my treasure trove

my sweet Ipsithila

When you invite

me lock no doors

nor change your mind

& step outside

But stay at home

& in your room

prepare yourself

To come nine times

straight off together

In fact if you

should want it now

I’ll come at once

for lolling on

the sofa here

with jutting cock

and stuffed with food

I’m ripe for stuffing you

My sweet Ipsithila.

LI

Godlike the man who

sits at her side, who

watches and catches

that laughter

which softly tears me

to tatters, nothing is

left of me, each time

I see her.

… tongue numbed; arms, legs

melting, on fire ; drum

drumming in my ears ; head-

lights gone black.

Her ease is your sloth, Catullus

You itch & roll in her ease

Former kings and cities

Lost in the valley of her arm

XXXIII

Vibennius & son, renowned

among bath-hut pilferers

pere

an adept at massage

fils

of voracious if of hirsute buttocks

why not remove yourselves?

Those manual depredations

are common knowledge

the allurements of those bum-cheeks

a drug on the market

why not remove yourselves?

Personal rating:  3/10

The reads in between: 

  • Death comes as the End : Agatha Christie sets this murder whodunnit in Ancient Egypt around 2000 BC. For once I was well on top of the murderer, but since so many got knocked off along the way, there were not many suspects left to choose from. 😊
  • The Martian : Andy Weir’s first novel describes the survival efforts of an astronaut left behind on Mars, and the rescue options NASA comes up with. Saw the movie last year. Looking forward to getting his next book Artemis about a bank heist on the Moon.
  • Mike : Another early Wodehouse about cricket and private schools. Entertaining if you love … well, Wodehouse or cricket.

Next :  Selected letters from Cicero.

 

The Plan for 2018

The Plan for 2018

Happy New Year!!!

Firstly a quick recap on my reading year in 2017 :

Classics read and blogged here on Chronolit : 55. Not as many as I had hoped perhaps, but this included finally reaching the end of both the Ancient Greeks and the Old Testament : both significant and exhausting goals, so got to be happy with that, right?

The Popsugar challenge was abandoned pretty early on as too random and distracting for my tastes, leaving me free to read more in genres I enjoy but have neglected, while the shared reading of the Wheel of Time series and the Oz books has been put on hold for the moment by the parent blogger.

I had confidently aimed for a total of 120 books in 2017, but it turns out that I only have 101 finished for Dec 31, and this included some graphic novels and audio plays. May and November were very low reading months, but in fairness I was working 3 jobs for much of the year.

So. on to 2018 and, of course, I am setting even bigger goals!

Firstly is the Classics and my aim is to read 60 books in 2018, which will bring me to the end of the 2nd century AD and the Roman authors finished. I will also aim for finishing the New Testament, with one chapter per weekday, and blog posts as I finish each of the 27 Books. These titles will get priority seating.

On the non-Classics front, I will be aiming for 12 Wodehouse comedies, 24 SF/Fantasy/Horror titles (including YA fantasy) and 12 Historical fiction/Biographies/Histories or Whodunnits through the year, for a total of 135.

Oh, and there is also another 37 titles on my Childhood memories TBR (to be revisited) list, which brings me to a grand total of 172, so that’s only 70% more than I managed in 2017. Easy, huh? Maybe 100 pages a day. Especially as I still have at least 2 jobs at last count, a week at the Commonwealth Games in Queensland and a walking adventure in Cornwall to pack in there as well. But easily reached targets are no challenge, right?

Thanks for keeping me company in 2017 and I wish you all a similarly successful and spectacular, safe and satisfying 2018!!!!

 

 

155.  The Conquest of Gaul, by Julius Caesar (58-50 BC)

155. The Conquest of Gaul, by Julius Caesar (58-50 BC)

Plot:  Caesar’s reports on his battles to subdue the Gaulish tribes, push back Germanic invaders  and reconnoitre the southeast coast of Britain.

My version is the Penguin Black Classic translated by S. A. Handford and revised by Jane Gardiner (ISBN 9780140444339)

My thoughts:

What could have been propaganda reads fairly honestly, even if written in the third person. Caesar’ success as a field General is largely based on his speedy decisions and quick marches to get into position before his enemies are aware, and yet in cases where his underlings make bad decisions, he writes it off as fortunes of war.

What is mindboggling is the sheer numbers of combatants involved. At one point, Caesar has the 53,000 survivors of a siege sold off as slaves to one bidder. On another occasion, the Gaulish supreme commander Vercingetorix raises 269,000 reinforcements from across all the Gaulish tribes. (Perhaps not too surprising as Caesar describes the Gaulish custom of torturing the last man to arrive at a muster)

Favourite lines/passages:

My favourite story is the two rival centurions Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, who had a history of acrimonious competition for promotion against each other. In battle with the Gauls, Pullo baits Vorenus into following him over the rampart into the heaviest part of the fighting with the enemy, which results in them each rescuing the other from overwhelming numbers and returning unhurt to their lines after killing many enemies (page 125)

Diversions and digressions:

Some siege terms which might come in handy later :

Fascines : bundles of sticks or brush used to fill in trenches, allow crossing of boggy ground, or make temporary barricades

Mantlets : light portable wicker shields large enough to cover 2-3 soldiers, light enough to be easily lifted and manoeuvred.

Redoubts : walled enclosures or earthworks surrounding a more permanent fort

Personal rating: Not as riveting throughout as I had hoped, but some impressive and historically valuable descriptions of battles and tactics. 5/10.

Also in that year:  And for a few pages at least, the known world briefly turns it’s attention to a soggy island in north west Europe.

The read in between:  Needful Things by Stephen King.  A curio shop opens in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine, stocking various items, each of which is the very heart’s desire of someone in that town. And the price of these treasures is surprisingly affordable. But along with the ticketed price, the proprietor just wants each customer to play a small practical joke on a neighbour. What can be the harm in that? Like the villain, this one is a little long in the tooth but still compelling.

Next :  The poetry of Catullus.

 

My year in Books 2017

A couple of my favourite blogsters responded to this fun from Adam at Roof Beam Reader (https://roofbeamreader.com/2017/12/13/my-life-in-books-2017-edition/) where you answer some random questions using titles of books read this year. Below is my effort which only features one classic title

  • In high school I was: The Devil’s Novice (Ellis Peters)
  • People might be surprised (by): The Innocence of Father Brown (G K Chesterton)
  • I will never be: The Virgin in the Ice (Ellis Peters … again)
  • My fantasy job is: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Frank L Baum)
  • At the end of a long day I need: Doctor Sleep (Stephen King)
  • I hate it when: Destination Unknown (Agatha Christie)
  • Wish I had:  The Pot of Gold (Plautus)
  • My family reunions are: The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean Auel)
  • At a party you’d find me with: Asterix and the Banquet (Goscinny and Uderzo)
  • I’ve never been to:  Desperation (Stephen King)
  • A happy day includes: Withering by Sea (Judith Rossell)
  • Motto I live by:  Skulduggery Pleasant (Derek Landy)
  • On my bucket list is: 1001 Walks to Take before You Die
  • In my next life, I want to have: Love among the Chickens (P G Wodehouse)

 

154. Selected Political Speeches by Cicero (between 66 and 44 BC)

154. Selected Political Speeches by Cicero (between 66 and 44 BC)

Plot:  Moving beyond his defendant’s role in the murder court, these speeches show Cicero employing his oratorical talents to win political points for himself or others. My copy is again a Penguin Black Classic translated and introduced by Michael Grant (ISBN 0140442146)

The first speech is in support of Cnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) being given sole conduct of the war against King Mithridates VI of Pontus (Anatolia). While Pompeius seems to have had an outstandingly successful military career in Spain and Gaul, as well as defeating the Third Slave uprising led by Spartacus and the effective eradication of rampant piracy throughout the Mediterranean, Cicero’s outrageous flattery style is so OTT as to cast him as the Hero of the Ages:

“not so much an envoy of Rome as some visitant from Heaven itself”  (page 54)

“surely some special design of the Gods must have brought him into being for the express purpose of successfully terminating all the wars of our time”  (page 55)

The second chapter is a set of four speeches revealing a conspiracy by Catilina, a former corrupt governor of Tunisia and unsuccessful runner for Consulship on several occasions, who now decided to grab power in Rome by more direct and violent methods, plotting mass assassinations including Cicero. Cicero’s spies discovered the plot, and Cicero calls him out in public in front of the Senate.

“The darkness of night no longer avails to conceal your traitorous consultations”   page 79

Although obviously preferring that Catilina be executed as in the good old days, Cicero publicly calls on him to leave Rome immediately so that “the city will be relieved of those copious pestilential dregs of the community who are your accomplices … a rabble of elderly down-and-outs, rustic debauchees, bankrupt country bumpkins…”.   Once Catalina leaves Rome, Cicero celebrates that “Rome has  … brought up and spewed forth this pestilential object from its system”.

This action has later repercussions on Cicero, as another of his enemies –  Clodius (who has suffered defeat and embarrassment from Cicero’s successful court orations) instigates Cicero’s exile for his role in executing the Catilinian ringleaders. Recalled to Rome by Pompeius after sixteen months, Cicero first defends a young man Marcus Caelius on charges of stealing from, and plotting to poison Clodius’ sister Clodia (a supposedly sexually rampant and completely immoral beauty who numbered the poet Catullus among her admirers), and then defending Clodius’ killer Milo after their gangs came to blows on the Appian Way.

These later speeches are more interesting not so much for the oratory (still with their liberal doses of irony, sarcasm and outrageous exaggeration and flattery) as for the background events : the failure of the Republic’s Senate and Assembly to control the mob violence and murders in Rome, the formation of the First Triumvirate and the shifting allegiances of key players around those three men. Cicero continued to support Pompeius, but once Crassus is killed in battle with the Parthians. Pompeius and Caesar would not stay friends for long.

The penultimate speech in this collection occurs after the Civil War between Pompeius and Caesar, and has Cicero praising the victor Caesar for his generosity in forgiving supporters of Pompeius (including Cicero himself) but also beseeching Caesar to continue to repair the economic and social life of Rome. It also seems that Caesar also had some warning or presentiment that his life was in danger from assassins at this time (46 BC), two years before his death.

The last speech in this book is known as the First Phillipic, the first of fourteen attacks by Cicero on Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony). This first one is apparently more moderate than subsequent ones, and in remarkably restrained style for Cicero, but nevertheless sealed his fate as an enemy of Antony – obviously Marc couldn’t take even mild criticism. Cicero would be killed by agents of the Second Triumvirate (Antony, Octavian and Lepidus), his head and hands cut off, and his tongue pierced with a hairpin by Fulvia, wife of Marc Antony and the widow of Clodius.

My thoughts:   Cicero is ranked by many as the ultimate orator, so I was expecting words and thoughts touching the sublime. Instead most of his speeches, particularly the politically motivated ones, are so completely exaggerated as to be laughable. Certainly he employs humour, wit and sarcasm throughout his speeches, but he is so lavish in praise of his clients that it becomes almost farcical. Of course, reading in translation from an ancient language would undoubtedly raise some vagaries, but this is stratospheres of level above what a modern day defending counsel would ever contemplate. It will be interesting to compare the style of his other works, particularly his other famous attacks on Marc Antony, and his personal letters.

Favourite lines/passages:

Firstly something we can all appreciate

“… For there is no other occupation on earth which is so appropriate to every time and every age and every place. Reading stimulates the young and diverts the old, increases one’s satisfaction when things are going well, and they are going badly, provides refuge and solace. It is a delight in the home, can be fitted in with public life; throughout the night, on journeys, in the country. It is a companion which never lets me down.”    Page 156

And for the sheer bitchiness, Cicero’s ‘praise’ of Clodia

“I never imagined I should have to engage in quarrels with women. Much less with a woman who has always been widely regarded as having no enemies, since she so readily offers intimacy in all directions”   page 184

“ every sort of pornographic rumour fits in perfectly with that lady’s reputation”  page 208

Personal rating:   Fun to read, hard to take seriously, yet interesting for the background events and personalities involved. 6.

The read in between:  The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton : ingenious short stories solved by a unusually bland detective and written in almost surreal style. Not my cup of tea, but ticks off my first read of Martin Edwards’ published list The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

Next :  The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar.