180. Phaedra by Seneca (c.50 AD)

180. Phaedra by Seneca (c.50 AD)

Plot:   Phaedra, second wife of King Theseus, falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who haughtily rejects her advances. In retaliation she tells Theseus that Hippolytus raped her, and Theseus calls down the wrath of Neptune on the youth.

My version was in Seneca, The Complete Tragedies, published by University of Chicago Press and edited by Shadi Bartsch (Vol. 1, ISBN 9780226748238)

My thoughts :  A familiar tale in the ancient world, told by Euripides amongst others (see my earlier post https://chronolit.com/2016/03/25/40-hippolytus-by-euripides-428-bc/ )

Seneca leaves out certain parts of the story, probably assuming his audience knew the story well enough. Phaedra is driven mad with lust for Hippolytus by Venus, as revenge for Phaedra’s father (the sun god Phoebus) revealing Venus’s affair with Mars. Phaedra knows her feelings for her stepson are wrong, but cannot help herself, recalling how her mother Pasiphae had unnatural relations with a bull resulting in the birth of the Minotaur, and reasoning the inheritance of some moral weakness in her family.

Hippolytus is initially concerned for Phaedra’s crazed grief, but on hearing her reluctant confession of love, rejects her quite coldly and arrogantly. He is the original misogynist, hating all women and only interested in hunting and living in the wild.

Hippolytus : “I consider this the only solace of my mother’s death, that now I can despise all women”  Act II, line 578-579.

Theseus has three wishes owing to him by Neptune, and uses the first to call down the God’s fury on Hippolytus. A great sea-bull emerges from the waves and spooks Hippolytus’ chariot horses and Hippolytus is tangled in the reins, falling and being torn to pieces along the rock-strewn beach. Phaedra confesses her lie before taking her own life, leaving Theseus to regret his precipitate action and mourn the loss of his son.

This version is very poetic, and foreshadows the beauty and style of Elizabethan drama.

Favourite lines/passages:

Phaedra (on the verge of tragedy): “My mouth won’t grant a passage to the speech I’ve started : a great force makes me speak, a greater holds me back. I call all of you to witness, gods: I don’t want the thing I want”   Act II, lines 601-605

Theseus (after he learns the truth): “My prayers do not move the gods, but if I prayed for evil, how ready they would be!” Act V, lines 1242-1243.

Digressions/diversions: The quite natty art deco style artwork above is by Georges Barbier (1882-1932). Well worth a Google.

Personal rating:  5/10

Also in these years (from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978)

  • Jesus Christ is hailed as the Messiah, and crucified for sedition by the Romans c.30 AD.
  • Succeeding Augustus, Rome has a series of emperors : Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.
  • Romans invade Britain again and fortify the site of London c. 43 AD.
  • Buddhism reaches China.

Other reading:   Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie. Came pretty close to solving the various crimes, but not following all of the Dame’s clues and logic.

Next :  Another retelling from Seneca, the fury and horror of Medea

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179. Fasti by Ovid (c. 8 AD)

179. Fasti by Ovid (c. 8 AD)

Plot:   An unfinished register of festival days in the Roman calendar, set in poetry.  My copy is the Loeb Classical Library volume, translated by James Frazer and revised by G. P. Goold (ISBN 0434992534)

My thoughts : This one already had two strikes against it before I picked it up : being an incomplete work (only January through to June are covered, the second half of the year is lost), and also consistently spoken of as Ovid’s least accomplished work (at least in Goodreads 🙂 ) Even putting aside Frazer’s annoying archaic English ‘thee’s, ‘thou’s, ‘wast’s and ‘haply’s, Ovid’s work is distinctly sub-par. His forays into the myths behind the holy days are scanty, vague and obscure, completely unlike his Metamorphoses. Half-written at the time of Ovid’s exile, perhaps it was only a draft, intended to be fleshed out and polished. Like Caesar I only reached the ides of March.

Favourite lines/passages:

Ovid asks Janus why the New Year doesn’t start in Spring when all other things are renewed, when “all things flower, then time renews his age, and new from out the teeming vine-shoot swells the bud … birds with their warblings winnow the warm air, the cattle frisk and wanton in the meads. Then suns are sweet, forth comes the stranger swallow and builds her clayey structure under the lofty beam”   I, lines 151-160

and a little more mercenary…

Janus to Ovid : “Oh, how little you know about the age you live in if you fancy that honey is sweeter than cash in hand!”   I, lines 191-192.

and when Pan lustfully tries to enter Hercules’ current squeeze Omphele’s bed, unaware that they have switched clothes in play, and the flimsy nightwear Pan can feel in the dark is about to lead him to a huge mistake.

Digressions/diversions:  Trivia was the Roman goddess of crossroads (Tri-via = three-ways).

Personal rating: 3/10 (just)

Next :  The tragedies of Seneca.

 

178.   Metamorphoses by Ovid (c. 8 AD)

178. Metamorphoses by Ovid (c. 8 AD)

Plot: Hundreds of Greek myths, all sharing some story of transformation of human into animal, tree, flower, rock or God, lined up together like a string of pearls, and artfully linked so very little break in story is apparent. An epic poem which is not an epic so much as an encyclopedia of mythology.

My version was the Penguin Black Classic translated by Mary Innes (ISBN 0140440585)

My thoughts : Beautifully rendered by Innes, this was a very easy classic to read, but not in just a few sittings. The prose flows from story to story in enough detail to really provide enjoyment of each myth, yet can be exhausting after just a little time; it would make an ideal addition to the reference library of lovers of mythology and literature, so it can be dived into at will or to refresh memory, aided by the index of characters.
So many stories (the Wikipedia entry claims nearly 250 myths mentioned) that it is hard for me to single out the most memorable. Just about any Greek myth I could think of is mentioned (I hadn’t realised how prevalent the idea of metamorphosis was in ancient mythology), so it is perhaps the ones I didn’t know so well that were of most interest : Narcissus and Echo, Ariadne, Hermaphroditus (son of Hermes and Aphrodite as the name suggests), and Iphis (a girl masquerading as a boy falling in love with another girl until the Gods hear her prayers and turn her into a man before the wedding night), and many more.
The story of the battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths in book 12 is atypically bloodthirsty, and hard to believe it is the same author as the rest of the poems, let alone the Amores and his other erotic stories. Likewise the last book takes an odd tangent to dwell on arguments for vegetarianism, as human souls may temporarily inhabit the beasts destined for our tables, which again is more Stoic philosophy than Ovidian epic poetry, before becoming a rather obvious flattery of Augustus and his father Julius Caesar.

Personal rating: 8/10

Next : Ovid’s Fasti, his uncompleted tour of the Roman festival calendar

177.  The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria), and Cures for Love (Remedia Amoris) by Ovid (2 AD)

177. The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria), and Cures for Love (Remedia Amoris) by Ovid (2 AD)

Plot:

The Art of Love is three books of advice on lovemaking : two directed at men and the third to women. Cures for Love provides advice on those trying to break free from their love obsession.

Both were included in The Erotic Poems by Ovid, published by Penguin and translated by Peter Green (ISBN 9780140443608)

My thoughts

For me, the humour inherent in much of The Amores is entirely absent from The Art of Love. Turning from describing his own romantic escapades to doling out advice to naïve men and women comes across as crass and insulting at best. The first book advising young men on where and how to meet women around Rome ends with such offensive comments stating how sexual aggression by men is justified because women are just playing coy or don’t know what they really want.

“It’s all right to use force – force of that sort goes down well with the girls … Rough seduction delights them, the audacity of near-rape is a compliment” Book 1, lines 673-677

I know these lines were written 2000 years ago, and modern sensibilities cannot be expected but surely they would have been difficult to defend such beliefs even in Ancient Roman society.

The second book tells men how to keep their conquests : that they must continuously fawn over their mistresses, no matter how insincere. While not criminal, it is still demeaning and belittling loving relationships. If this was all meant to be amusing or even satirical, I’m afraid I missed the boat.

Paradoxically, Ovid is quite the proto-feminist in book 3, with his advice to women is that the best result is when both partners reach climax together; and women should choose a lovemaking position based on their body size and shape is also refreshingly modern. He also comments that women will make efforts to appear to their best advantage for their own sake as much as to catch a man’s attention (this from a fragment of another of his poems On Facial Treatments for Ladies )

Ovid makes constant use of mythological parallels to justify his advice and scenarios; so many in fact that they pile up and threaten to obscure his message, although his description of Icarus flying too close to the sun in Book 1, while perhaps not so logically included, was well depicted. Bodes well for his Metamorphoses, the next book on my list.

There has been a long standing belief that this work may have been partly to blame for Ovid’s exile from Rome (he died in Tomis, a remote town on the other side of the Danube in what is now Romania) away from wife and family.

As for the partner book Cures for Love, Ovid is back on course with a myriad of ideas on how to escape from overwhelming passion – those “held in bondage with cruel Love’s foot set hard” on their neck. Some diversion (litigation, farm work, fighting in the war, hunting, or travelling) will make one forget their obsession with a lover –  too much leisure time encourages Cupid. If this fails, dwelling on and magnfiying the loved one’s imperfections may help. Taking a second lover may lessen the impact of the first. Ignoring him altogether or breaking dates, or contrarily, glutting oneself so much in her company and lovemaking that it becomes tedious, and so on. Ovid doesn’t want the patient to hate his or her ex, just to be indifferent until completely cured. Perhaps a collection of cowardly strategies but at least they raised a smile after the previous read.

Favourite lines/passages:

“The man who protests to the world “I’m not in love”, is.”  (Cures for love, lines 648-649)

 Digressions/diversions: 

I have now moved into the third millennium of literature, in time for the third anniversary celebration of Chronolit next week. Yay me!!

Personal rating:   Art of Love  3/10, Cures for Love  6/10

Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy bestowed a ‘kiss’ (read ‘lick’) on my cheek as I typed this. That’s real love!

Also in these years: In the last quarter century (25 BC to 1 AD):

  • The Roman Republic is replaced by the Roman Empire, with Octavius becoming Emperor Augustus (27 BC), and campaigning against German tribes (16-15 BC)
  • Astronomy develops significantly during China’s Han Dynasty

and a baby is born in Bethlehem.

Next :  More Ovid with one of the heavyweight titles of ancient literature, his Metamorphoses.

176. Amores by Ovid (c. 8 BC)

176. Amores by Ovid (c. 8 BC)

Plot:   Three volumes (originally five) of lusty love poems, some quite earthy and many with a strong sense of humour.

My copy was part of The Erotic Poems by Ovid, published by Penguin and translated by Peter Green (9780140443608)

My thoughts

The Amores are most excellent fun, a little bit raunchy and often very funny due to Ovid’s self-deprecation, sexual boasting, and mixture of supposed conquests and rebuffs. His chief mistress Corinna is married but Ovid manages to send her messages and arrange rendezvous.

At one point he reassures Corinna that he is not having an affair with her maid Cypassis as well (2.VII), but in the very next poem he admonishes the same maid to stay quiet about their love making (2.VIII)

A recurrent theme is Ovid’s distaste for Corinna’s demanding gifts and money, which he cannot afford, when after all, his poetry will make them immortal.

There is also humour in Ovid trying to persuade a husband to allow his wife to have extramartial liaisons (with Ovid first in line, no doubt) (3.IV) and yet another time he berates a husband for not taking more care over his wife, taking away any challenge to their trysts (2.XIV).

Yet Ovid is not always successful. Sometimes he is blocked by guards, locked doors, unco-operative slaves or other suitors. And in 3.VII, he suffers erectile failure despite his girl’s repeated  efforts to get him aroused.

Favourite lines/passages

Ovid sits across from Corinna and her husband at a dinner party : so close and yet so far

“Don’t let him put his arms around your neck, and oh, don’t lay that darling head of yours on his coarse breast. Don’t let his fingers roam down your dress to touch up those responsive nipples. Above all, don’t you dare kiss him, not once….

I’m scared all right, and no wonder. … I’ve often petted to climax with my darling at a party, hand hidden under her cloak…”  (1.IV)

But is rewarded another time when she visits his bedroom (or is it a dream?)

“In stole Corinna, long hair tumbled around her soft white throat, a rustle of summer skirts, like some fabulous Eastern queen en-route to her bridal chamber …. When at last she stood naked before me .. smooth shoulders, delectable arms, nipples inviting caresses, the flat belly outlined beneath that flawless bosom, exquisite curve of a hip, firm youthful thighs … nothing came short of perfection”   (1.V)

Ovid explains his success in unlocking doors to his paramours via his love poems

“There’s magic in poetry, it’s power can pull down the bloody moon, turn back the sun, make serpents burst asunder or rivers flow upstream”  (2.I)

Oh I forgot 2.IV where Ovid tells us he has no favourite ‘sort’ of woman – he loves them all. Shy, pert, intellectual or featherbrained, fans and critics, singers, dancers, tall and short, fair and brunette – he is omnisusceptible.

Digressions/diversions:  Would a cold shower count?

Personal rating:   8/10 (which probably reflects my tastes tellingly)

Other reading:

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. A young orphan and a gang of giant talking insects have a series of adventures in a runaway giant peach.  Fun but not instilled with the same charm as Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The BFG. But who else would have conceived using a giant peach as a means of transport?

A Rare Benedictine by Ellis Peters. Three short stories featuring the amateur detective Cadfael, including a brief window into his decision to join the brethren of Shrewsbury Abbey. Enjoyable for fans but not as satisfying as a full mystery novel.  

The Dwarves by Marcus Heitz. First in a fantasy series uniquely focused on dwarves. More like Shanarra than Middle Earth. Some very good ideas but the simplicity of the plot and some illogical scenes let it down. I won’t be bothering with the subsequent volumes.

Next :  The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria) by Ovid

175.  Ab Urbe Condita (A History of Rome). Books XXXI to XLV (Rome and the Mediterranean) by Livy (c.14 BC)

175. Ab Urbe Condita (A History of Rome). Books XXXI to XLV (Rome and the Mediterranean) by Livy (c.14 BC)

Plot:   Battles with Philip of Macedonia, Antiochus of Syria, Nabis of Sparta, and finally Philip’s son Perseus between 200 and 167 BC, which lead initially to what may have been thought of as the emancipation of Greek states from Macedonia, and eventually the widespread influence of Rome over the entire Eastern Mediterranean, laying the foundation for what would become an Empire.

My copy was the Penguin Black Classic Rome and the Mediterranean, translated by Henry Bettenson (ISBN 0140443185)

My thoughts:  Unlike the Second Punic War against Hannibal which still captures the imagination, this stretch of thirty years seem like mere skirmishes in comparison. Yet this series of battles and confrontations (later known as the Second and Third Macedonian Wars, and the Seleucid war against Antiochus of Syria) eventually led to Roman domination of Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, and the diminution of Macedonian power.

Halfway through I bailed on these books, largely for the reason above. There was just nothing memorable or inspiring about this period to keep my attention. Livy is certainly a thorough recorder of history, but I think I had wearied of the year by year reports without the personalities of Hannibal or Scipio to keep me intrigued.

One interesting point. As reported in previous books, Roman commanders would sometimes hurl legion standards into the ranks of the enemy to urge their troops to attack and recover them and hence maintain their honour; or deliberately place their armies between the enemy and a geographic barrier, giving the men no choice but to fight on in hopes of victory, knowing that they could not panic and retreat. You would have to be confident that these tactics would work and your men were strong enough to win, or disaster would follow.

I couldn’t help comparing the role of Rome in these conflicts with modern day expectations of the United States as a political mediator and/or military power.

And what happened to Horace’s Epistles as promised? I did read most of them, honest; but just before my brain shut down, I was overwhelmed with the realisation that life is too short to reread them looking for something worthwhile to say about them to you. The longer ones just seemed to ramble, producing no joy in me. While no doubt it is me at fault, I feel no guilt in moving on. Dymo me heathen. That’s two retreats in a row – the Romans have defeated me too.

Personal rating:   Not a reflection on the quality of writing but the events they depict and my own exhaustion with reading about more years of warfare. 3/10

Other reading:

rp1Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Teen sci-fi novel recently made into a very entertaining film by Spielberg. Dystopian near future has everyone escaping reality into wholly immersive online computer worlds, with the multibillion dollar ownership of the system up for grabs to whoever can solve the riddles and beat the games. A love song to 80s videogames, movies and pop culture which people seem to either love or hate, but also a sweet coming of age story, a romance and an adventure story. I fell for all of it. 5/5

Prairie Fires  by Caroline Fraser. Detailed biography of the life and times of Laura Iprairie firesngalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie stories which have been a guilty pleasure of mine for many years, not least for editions with the sweet line drawings by Garth Williams. Sets the trials of the Ingalls against a wider context, and much about the relationship between Laura and her own daughter Rose as they collaborate on writing the Little House books. Interesting especially for Wilder fans. 4/5

Next :  Amores (Erotic poems) by Ovid. Woo hoo!