163. The Eclogues by Virgil (c. 42-39 BC)

163. The Eclogues by Virgil (c. 42-39 BC)

Plot:   Ten pastoral poems set in the idyllic countryside, full of singing goatherds; sometimes with the bitter undercurrent of rejected love, but also topical themes such as agricultural dispossession as farmers are driven off their farms, which are then given to demobbed soldiers from the battle at Phillipi.

I read the World’s Classics version The Eclogues, The Georgics, translated by Cecil Day-Lewis (ISBN 0192816438), then looked at some earlier translations from the 16th-19th centuries in the Penguin classic Virgil in English (ISBN 0140423869)

My thoughts: Virgil has been hailed as a bedrock poet of European literature, inspiring a plethora of translations and imitations from the likes of Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Milton, Dryden, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Auden. However the Day-Lewis version left me indifferent, with very little to pass on of interest. More interesting was sampling the various earlier translations, showing how the style of language and literature changes with the ages.

For instance, from Eclogue I, the dispossessed farmer Meliboeus laments his fate in three different versions.

“But the rest of us must go from here and be dispersed — To Scythia, bone-dry Africa, the chalky spate of the Oxus. Even to Britain – that place cut off at the very world’s end. Ah, when will I see my native land again? after long years, or never? — see the turf-dressed roof of my simple cottage, and wondering gaze at the ears of corn that were all my kingdom. To think of some godless soldier owning my well-farmed fallow ….”       (C Day-Lewis, 1963)

“We poor soules must soone to the land cald Affrica packe hence, Some to the farre Scythia, and some must to the swift flood Oaxis, some to Britannia coastes quite parted farre from the whole world. Oh these pastures pure shall I nere more chance to behold yee? And out cottage poore with warme turves coverd about trim. Oh these trim tilde landes, shall a recklesse soldier have them?….”   (William Webbe, 1586)

“But we must roam to parts remote, unknown, under the Torrid and the Frigid Zone. These frozen Scythia, and parcht Affrick those; Cretan Oaxis others must inclose. Some ‘mongst the utmost Britains are confin’d, doomed to an isle from all the world disjoyn’d.

Ah! Must I never more my Country see, but in strange lands an endless Exile be? In my eternal banishment decreed from my poor Cottage, rear’d with turf and reed? Must impious Soldiers all these grounds possess, my fields of standing corn, my fertile Leyes?”  (John Caryll, 1684)

(PS I liked Caryll best)

Digressions/diversions: New word for the day. Stravagueing : to wander aimlessly

Personal rating:  Day-Lewis version : 2.

Also in that year:

To recap …

60 BC Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus form an alliance to further their political ambitions.

58-54 BC   Caesar defeats the Gaulish tribes, and briefly invades Britain (twice)

49 – 45 BC Caesar enters Italy with his armies of Gallic war veterans and eventually defeats Pompey’s forces, attaining supreme power of the Roman world

44 BC Caesar assassinated on the Ides of March by conspirators including Cassius and Brutus

43 BC A second ‘triumvirate’ formed between Marc Antony, Lepidus and Caesar’s adopted son Octavius

42 BC Antony and Octavius defeat Brutus and Cassius at Phillipi.

The reads in between: 

The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham (1956).  Wyndham’s other full-length novels always disappointed me after his excellent The Day of the Triffids, but this collection of science fiction short stories were a joy. The first few are gentle Wellesian tales (Chronoclasm, Time to Rest) but then Wyndham shows a more ruthless layer of steel and horror  with stories like Survival, and Pillar to Post (the latter a cat and mouse game as two men fight for the one body using mind transference across the galaxy). Might be difficult to find a copy, but recommended.

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwall (2017). Looked forward to this a great deal as Cornwall writes excellent and well researched historical novels, especially his Sharpe series. Following Richard Shakespeare, brother to William and a young thief/actor in the latter’s group of players. It started off a little slow without the adventurous setting of his other books, but by halfway I was hooked. To say too much would spoil the ride, but if you liked Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare in Love, or historical action stories …. Recommended.

Next :   Satires by Horace.

Advertisements
162. The Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust c.40 BC

162. The Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust c.40 BC

Plot:   Catiline, frustrated over his failure to be elected consul, and driven by his hatred of Cicero, plans a rebellion to overthrow the Roman Senate, raising an army of the disaffected, and simultaneously planning a series of assassinations, massacres and arson attacks to sweep Rome. Forewarned by Gaulish conspirators, Cicero announces the plot in the Senate and the ringleaders remaining in Rome are captured and executed. Catiline and his remaining men are forced to turn and fight to the death against the pursuing Roman army.

Published by Penguin in a single volume with The Jugurthine War, edited by S.A. Handford (ISBN 0140441328)

My thoughts:  A lot of moralising about the rise and fall of the Roman character leads us to believe Catiline is the worst sort of debaucher and killer imaginable, so it is a surprise when Sallust’s depiction of the battle which marked the end of the Catiline conspiracy shows the valour of the rebels in facing their defeat. It ends with very visual evidence of the horrors of civil war.

Also interesting was the Senate’s difficulty in deciding on the punishment of the captured conspirators, with Caesar suggesting the then-novel idea of long term imprisonment rather than exile or death; and the moral question of exacting punishment before the criminal deed could be committed.

Favourite lines/passages:

Before even starting the text, this sentence in the introduction by the editor caught my eye

“Up to the year 64, Catiline seems to have been merely an ambitious careerist who in spite of a taste for dissipation and homicide had something likable about him”   (page 163)

And Catiline’s supposed parting shot at the Senate after Cicero’s denouncement:

“Since I am encompassed by foes, and hounded to desperation, I will check the fire that threatens to consume me by pulling everything down about your ears!”   (page 199)

Personal rating:  5

Next : The Eclogues of Virgil

161. The Jugurthine War, by Sallust.  c .40 BC

161. The Jugurthine War, by Sallust. c .40 BC

Plot:   Historical account of the North African Jugurthine War (112-105 BC), where the adopted Prince Jugurtha slew his step brothers and attempted to make himself King of the Roman Province of ‘Africa’ (modern day Tunisia), opposed by the Roman forces led unsuccessfully by a series of Roman generals until the leadership of Marius.

Published by Penguin in a single volume with Sallust’s other surviving work, The Conspiracy of Catiline. Translated by S. A. Handford (ISBN 0140441328)

My thoughts:  Unlike Caesar’s reports of honourable battles and pardons, Sallust paints a picture of treachery, bribery, slaughter, incompetence and cowardice, both on the battlefront and in the halls of power on both sides of the conflict, which is probably closer to the truth. Seven years of to-ing and fro-ing is only resolved by the Romans bribing a neighbouring King enough to lure Jugurtha into a trap.

I hadn’t heard of this period of Roman history at all before picking up Sallust, but it does introduce important players Marius and Sulla early in their careers before they orchestrated massacres of Roman citizens in the First Civil War that so horrified Cicero 40 years later, and demonstrates that the North African province was still valuable to the Roman Republic even after the fall of Carthage.

Favourite lines/passages:

Jugurtha travels to Rome to petition (ie bribe) his way to the throne of the Kingdom of Africa, but is only partly successful. As he leaves, he reputedly turns back to look again at the city, and exclaims

“Yonder is a city put up for sale, and its days are numbered if it finds a buyer”   (page 73)

Marius, deputy to Metellus on the African campaign, grows increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in both the war and this political career, returns to Rome and is elected Consul by the support of the common people. Included in one of his speeches are the lines

“I cannot, to justify your confidence in me, point to the portraits, triumphs, or consulships of my ancestors. But if need be I can show spears, a banner, medals, and other military honours, to say nothing of the scars on my body – all of them in front. These are my family portraits, these my title of nobility, one not bequeathed to me, as theirs were to them, but won at the cost of countless toils and perils.”                        (pages 119-120)

Personal rating:  4

The reads in between: 

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb : yet another first in a fantasy trilogy by an author that I really should have read before now (I was reading the 20th anniversary edition!!) A young bastard responsible for the scandal leading to his father’s abdication is raised first as a stable boy and later an assassin in the royal court. Kept me interested throughout and keen enough to seek out more.

James Herriot’s Favourite Dog Stories. Heart warming short stories lifted from the All Creatures Great and Small books, capturing not only the spirit and loyalty of the working and family dogs Herriot encounters as a vet in 1930s Yorkshire, but also the beautiful land and earthy people, faithfully captured on the page.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie. An easy introduction to books set in Cornwall before my walk there in April. A young woman blithely ignores her multiple brushes with death until Poirot becomes involved.  Had the murderer pegged around the 2/3 mark. Ah Agatha, I have your measure now.

Next : The Conspiracy of Catiline.

160. The Civil War, by Gaius Julius Caesar (c.47-45 BC)

160. The Civil War, by Gaius Julius Caesar (c.47-45 BC)

Plot:   Pompey and Caesar duke it out for control of Rome.  Penguin edition translated by Jane Gardner (0140441875)

My thoughts: 

Like his Commentaries on the Gallic War, Caesar’s version of events goes down in history, painting himself as the peace-seeking general forced for his own life and honour to protect himself from his enemies and their control of the Senate by taking his armies to Rome. Unlike the treacherous subordinates of Pompey, Caesar releases defeated forces and prisoners unharmed, even discharging and paying the beaten soldiers as if they were his own forces. If true, it shows his sensitivity to the particular nature of the horrors of civil war

Eventually Caesar’s and Pompey’s forces meet – fortunes of war swing each way until Pompey relies too heavily on his cavalry, who are routed by Caesar’s infantry. Pompey escapes to Egypt where he is quickly put to death by the henchmen of King Ptomley XIII the boy king, who is fighting his own battle for the Egyptian throne against his sister Cleopatra. As consul of Rome, Caesar offers to mediate between the two sides, but is besieged by Ptomley’s forces in one quarter of the city, starting off the Alexandrian War.

Also in this volume are descriptions of the subsequent Alexandrian War, and the mopping up of the remaining Pompeian forces (the African War and the Spanish War), continuing the thread of events; at first believed to be also written by Caesar but soon attributed to other, anonymous authors.  No mention of Caesar dallying with Cleopatra though.

Six months after defeating the Pompeians in Spain, Caesar is assassinated on the Ides of March 44BC.

Favourite lines/passages:

Caesar’s speech to his armies

“I have been your commander for nine years; under my leadership, your efforts on Rome’s behalf have been crowned with good fortune; you have won countless battles and pacified the whole of Gaul and Germany. Now, I ask you to defend my reputation and standing against the assaults of my enemies”     (page 39)

And to the Senate

“Therefore I earnestly ask you to join with me now in taking over the government of Rome; if timidity makes you shrink from the task I shall not trouble you – I shall govern by myself.

Envoys must be sent to Pompey to discuss terms. I am not frightened by his recent statement in this assembly that the sending of deputations merely enhances the prestige of those to whom they are sent and reveals the fears of the senders. These are the reflections of a weak and petty spirit. My aim is to outdo others in justice and equity, as I have previously striven to outdo them in achievement”    (pages 52-53)

Digressions and diversions

Triremes, Quadriremes and Quinqueremes ; the difference

Various types of warships employed by the Romans and others. A trireme has three banks of oars on each side, each oar rowed by a single man. Used by the Phonecians, Greeks and Romans, they were superceded by the heavier quadriremes and quinqueremes.

A quadrireme had, as the name suggests, four rows of oars, possibly with two men per oar; while the quinquereme had  three banks of oars with the top two manned by two oarsmen per oar, and the lower bank with one man per oar, a total of 300 oarsmen and also capable of carrying up to 120 marines.

                    

Just so you don’t hop on the wrong one to take you across Sydney Harbour or the Firth of Forth.

Personal rating:  Not as exciting as the Gallic Wars, until the final confrontation and the subsequent events in Egypt. It was also difficult to keep track of who was on who’s side. Lets call it a 4.

The reads in between: 

Black cats and Butlers, by Janine Beacham: Plucky young heroine Rose and her overly dramatic proto-Goth friend Emily discover a world of graverobbers, magicians, duelling butlers, secret societies and mystical cats in an alternate version of York. First in a series for readers 10-12, this was a cracking good read but how I wish it had been written for an older audience, fleshed out with more detail – it was all over far too quickly.

Next :  Sallust’s two surviving works, The Jugurthine War and The Conspiracy of Catiline. Will he support Cicero’s versions of events regarding Catiline?

159. The Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum), by Cicero, c.44 BC

159. The Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum), by Cicero, c.44 BC

Plot:   Cicero describes the popular schools of thought regarding the existence and nature of the Gods, in the guise of a conversation between his friends Velleius the Epicurean, Balbus the Stoic, and Cotta the Skeptic priest.

I ‘read’ the Penguin edition translated by H C P McGregor (ISBN 0140442650)

My thoughts: Having read some of Cicero’s speeches and letters, the remaining area of his available writings to sample is his presentation of various philosophical treatises, summarised and recast with his own stresses on their importance, from Greek into Latin – and sometimes creating new words added to the Latin language to meet the need to describe new ideas. Cicero wrote extensively from his country home, to try and find solace after being forced again into exile after his famous attacks on Marc Antony, and suffering terrible grief with the death of his daughter Tullia.

Ancient philosophy leaves me either cold or confused, so it was a struggle to get anywhere with this, reading the first half in some detail, but only skimming through the second half. Epicurean thought as discovered in my previous read on Lucretius is essentially that the Gods do not have the slightest interest in mankind, and so there is no need to live in fear of their retribution or an eternity in Hell. On the other hand, Stoicism as described here is centred around the opposite view – that God/Gods have every part of our lives planned and our lives are therefore predestined to go where They direct. Interestingly the pantheon of Greek/Roman gods depicted in plays and epic poems are not given much credence, with the idea of a sentient Universe, stars and planets preferred by the Stoics, and unsubstantial wraithlike Gods without material bodies by the Epicureans.

The need for some Supreme Being to have organised and constructed everything, and to provide a base for morality and hence justice is strongly argued, against the random creation of atoms attracting each other. Some may think that this argument between forms of science and religion is a relatively recent divide but the Romans and Greeks were debating it 1,900 years before Charles Darwin wrote Origin of the Species.

The priest Cotta  argues against both Epicureanism and Stoicism, not to say there are no Gods, but that the logic and assumptions relied upon by these philosophies are faulty.

Personal rating:  For lovers of philosophy and religion. I can only give it a 3.

The reads in between:  An excellent later book by P. G. Wodehouse, Frozen Assets has the hero trying to prevent his best friend from getting nicked by the local constabulary and thereby nullifying his chances of inheriting millions, while simultaneously convincing the girl of his dreams to break off her engagement and marry him instead. Lots of trouser swapping ensues.

Next :  Although there are other works by Cicero still extant, I think I have had enough of him for now, and I am eager to move on and read of the events of the fall of the Republic through other eyes. So on to Caesar’s own personal recount of The Civil War.

 

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.

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.