171. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books VI-X, by Livy (c. 24 BC)

171. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books VI-X, by Livy (c. 24 BC)

Plot:   The second set of five books of Livy’s History of Rome, stretching from its recovery from the Gauls’ attack in 390 BC to pretty much the end of the Third Samnite War and Rome’s domination of central Italy by 292 BC.

“Who would begrudge the length of time spent on writing or reading of wars which did not wear down the men who fought them?”   (p. 333)

My copy is the Penguin Black classic translated by Betty Radice (ISBN 0140443886)

My thoughts:  Livy set out to make the writing of Rome’s history his life’s work, intending to write 120 books in sets of 5, with every 15 marking a stage. The first fifteen covered the rise of Rome to become masters of Italy, the next fifteen the Wars with Carthage, and so on, from the mythical establishment of Rome in 757 BC to his own time (c.24 BC). He started to add a further 30 books which were not finished by his death in 17 AD. Of the 142 he did write, only four sets survive.  I have already read books I-V covering Rome’s beginnings and move from kingship to Senatorial government, and now face books VI-X which consists almost solely of continuous warfare with neighbouring tribes until they are on the verge of being the dominant peoples in central Italy.

Livy writes about each year in succession, starting with the names of the newly elected consuls, and which wars they were assigned for the year (yes, it was that regular). Little mention is made of any other aspect of Roman life but politics and warfare. He has more sources to rely on compared with the earlier years, and cites them and any doubts he has about their timelines or accuracy. He also interrupts his own narrative in book IX to give his opinions on Alexander the Great’s likelihood of defeating a Roman army had such an opportunity arisen, and like a good Roman, he comes down on the side of his own nation.

Despite annual wars with their neighbours, and the making and breaking of treaties and peace accords, I can see the beginnings of empire in Roman offers of citizenship (with or without voting rights) to defeated tribes, and the sending of colonists to take up land conquered. Each year the numbers of killed enemies was in the thousands and tens of thousands, so empty farmland couldn’t have been in short supply. And yet the same tribes somehow have thousands more young men to send to their deaths the next year.

Politically the plebeian party gains more power over the hundred years covered by these books, significantly reducing the interest rates on debts, removing the enslavement of debt defaulters, and markedly gaining the prestige of being included to stand in elections for consulship.

Favourite lines/passages:

Many of the years and battles have a predictable sameness of events, so the ones that stand out have interesting stories

  • A young Roman soldier Marcus Valerius takes up the one-on-one challenge from the champion of the Gauls. As they began to fight, a raven suddenly landed on Valerius’ helmet and stays, pecking and clawing at the Gaul’s face until he was half-blind, and Valerius can kill him with a sword thrust. (p. 131)
  • The Roman army is trapped in a valley with no way out except to surrender. They are stripped naked and forced to walk one by one “under the yoke” and promise peace (p. 223) This humiliation is redressed by later battles as the enemy in their excitement did not use the correct form of words in extracting the promise, binding only the general himself, who after reporting his failure to the Roman people, insisted on being stripped and bound and handed back to the enemy.
  • The devotio (intentional suicide by a general by throwing himself into the enemy single handed to lift the Gods’ displeasure with his army) by Publius Decius Mus, repeating the same act his father committed in battle years before.
  • And the Romans being a superstitious lot, always consulted the auguries before entering battle. The ever present Keepers of the Sacred Chickens would check how the birds were eating their corn to decide if an attack would be propitious. The general Lucius Papirius fighting the Samnites in 293 BC was told the chickens were eating well (the corn was ‘dancing’, which was untrue) and planned his attack. Some cavalry officers heard the chicken-keepers arguing about their false report, and told Papirius, who continued with his plans, but moved the chicken-keepers into the front line to face the brunt of the enemy’s assault. (p. 346)

Personal rating:   5/10

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170. Heroides by Ovid  (c. 25 – 16 BC)

170. Heroides by Ovid (c. 25 – 16 BC)

Plot:   A collection of letters written by famous women of myth and legend to their unfaithful or absent lovers. The last three are paired letters between the heroine and her lover.

I read the Loeb Classical Library translation by Grant Showerman, revised by GP Goold (ISBN 0674990455)

My thoughts:  What makes for fairly turgid reading as each famous heroine is seen suffering from the misdeeds or infidelity of their husbands or lovers left me with the impression (i) how common a theme this was in Greek and Roman literature, (ii) how powerless even those women with magic, beauty or royal connection were, with suicide usually the only remaining option, and (iii) how the plight of these women was not only a recurrent theme but also did not go unnoticed by playwrights and poets.

Still fairly depressing to read tragedy after tragedy in one volume.

Favourite lines/passages”

tears, too, have none the less the weight of words”  (III, Briseis to Achilles)

“Suffer her not to tear my hair before your eyes, while you lightly say of me : “She, too, once was mine.”    (III, Briseis to Achilles)

Jason of Argonaut fame offends twice, deserting Hypsipyle (VI) for Medea, and in her turn Medea (XII) for Glauce. Euripides’ play Medea shows in startling horror how badly that went, and even Hypsipyle’s quote below implies Medea was not a woman to scorn

“But as for your mistress – with my own hand I would have dashed my face with her blood … I would have been Medea to Medea!”   (VI, Hypsipyle to Jason)

Digressions/diversions:  Several of the couples I had forgotten or not heard the original story, so it was advantageous to do a quick Google to understand the background story alluded to by each heroine before reading their letters.

Personal rating:   4/10

The reads in between: 

  • Redshirts by John Scalzi, a must-read for Trek fans with a sense of humour
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, a whodunnit classic by the Dame, and listed in Martin Edwards’ Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl – the books read by Matilda from the public library would make an excellent one-per-month reading challenge at some point
  • The Borrowers by Mary Norton – a bit disappointing but still worthwhile and quirky in places

Next :  Books VI-X of Livy’s History of Rome

169. Elegies by Propertius (c. 25 – 16 BC)

169. Elegies by Propertius (c. 25 – 16 BC)

Plot:   “I should always wish to be the wan lover of an angry mistress” Book III.8  That about sums up most of Propertius’ love poetry for Cynthia. He records Love’s highs and lows, his and her infidelities, and finally her death and rebukes from the grave.

My version is the Loeb Classical Library volume Elegies by Propertius, edited and translated by G. P. Goold (ISBN 067499020X)

My thoughts: 

Propertius is known only for his books of poetry, most of which consist of praise and tokens of his love for his beautiful Cynthia, equal of Helen of Troy, yet a cruel, hardhearted and tyrannical lover. Propertius is tortured with jealousy – he pictures himself shipwrecked and forced to live without her, to be on the brink of death and worried more that she will not shed tears over his grave. His love is a sickness from which he will never recover. Even when she is unfaithful, Propertius will imagine no other lover in his life. He does cure himself of his affection by the end of book 3 and manages to spell out poems on other subjects, but Cynthia returns repeatedly to his thoughts and writings : he is fated to be the “slave of a single love” (II.13). At one point he wins her interest back for one night by feigning disdain, only to worry whether his “ship”  “shall safely reach the shore or founder overladen amid the shoals”  (II, 14). The next poem leaves us in no doubt of his success : “a single such night might make any man a god!” (II.15)

His poetry is romantic and often anguished, with some elegant phrases, many which were later borrowed by Dante, Shakespeare and Keats amongst others. He constantly uses references to the Greek myths and legends, The Iliad and The Odyssey to describe his feelings and sufferings, such as reproaching Cynthia, as beautiful as Helen but lacking Penelope’s (Odysseus’ wife) faithfulness.

Before you feel too sorry for the poet, I might just add that the editor of the version I read was convinced Cynthia was not a real person but merely a literary phantasm for Propertius to hang his poetry on. I’m not sure : that was a lot of anguish in one small book.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Now for very joy I can set my feet upon the stars in heaven: come day or night, she is mine!”  I.8

Yet the ecstasy does not last ; from the very next poem :

“Never has Love provided anyone with easy wings without pulling him down with alternate hand” I.9

There was also a wonderful poem which depicts how a gang of cherubs (a multitude of Cupids) seek out Propertius in his drunken stumblings and force him to Cynthia’s house where she has been waiting all night for his arrival.

“Last night, my Love, as I wandered steeped in wine with no band of slaves to guide me, a crowd of tiny boys accosted me. I know not how  many, since fear prevented my counting them; some, I faniced, held torches, some arrows, and others were even getting fetters ready for me. But they were naked. One more impudent than the rest cried out “Arrest him, for you know him well enough. This was the man, this the one that the angry girl set us to deal with.”  Hardly had he spoken when a noose was round my neck.

Hereupon another bids them push me into their midst, and yet another “Death to whoever does not believe us gods! This girl, though you deserve it not, has been awaiting you for hours, whilst you, stupid, were looking for a woman out of doors …. Go now, and learn to stay at home of nights!”               Book  II, 29A  (page 219-221)

 But let us leave  them on a happy note

“So, while we may, let us love and be happy together: never, however long, does love last long enough”     I.19

Personal rating:  4/10

Kimmy’s rating:  Not impressed, Kim sat beside me with soulful eyes. Let’s go for a walk and leave them to it, she seemed to say.

Next :  The Heroides by Ovid

 

 

 

Lands End to John O’Groats : an introduction

Lands End to John O’Groats : an introduction

Nothing here to do with literature, so feel free to look away now.

More than twenty years ago, I heard of the Lands End to John O’Groats walk, from one end of mainland UK to the other, Cornwall to the tip of Northeastern Scotland – an accomplishment more than an actual walking trail, for there is no one set way to tackle it. Since then I have read various accounts, collected books and maps suggesting possible routes, and dreamed of when and how I would stake my claim.

Having walked the West Highland Way and Wainwright’s Coast to Coast in the meantime, I still had not started on my own personal LEJOG. But in three weeks, I will be flying across the world to London and traveling by train down to Penzance and across to Land’s End to attempt the first leg – I can’t afford the time and may not have the stamina to walk the entire way in one continuous outing.  I will walk along the south coast of Cornwall, reaching Plymouth in about two weeks. Most LEJOG walkers take the north coast or strike across the centre of the Cornish peninsula to save time using a more direct route. But I was impressed many years ago by the late John Butler’s marvellous website (http://www.jbutler.org.uk/e2e/index.shtml) from which I have borrowed the map above; and decided, like John, to include the south Cornish coast and the open stretches of Dartmoor and Exmoor, as the experience and not the number of days is my paramount interest.

I plan to actually start out from Sennen Cove just north of Lands End on Friday 20th April, due to reach Plymouth on Saturday 5th May. I have a ticket for Henry IV, part 1, being played at the cliffside replica-Grecian Minack Theatre, and accommodation prebooked in B&Bs and pubs along the way.

Hopefully I will have some photos and stories to share with you once I return to Australia

I also have a few personal ‘guidelines’ for my version of LEJOG

1. Walk from one end of mainland Britain to the other, specifically Land’s End (most southwesterly point) to John O’Groats, and include Lizard Point (most southerly point) and Dunstansby Head (most northeasterly point)
2. Start each day’s walk from the precise stopping point of the day before
3. Use no other mode of land transport for parts of the actual walk. Buses or taxis between the walk and my overnight accommodation are allowed, but I have to start from where I finished walking the previous day (see #2 above)
4. Short water crossings via bridges or ferries are allowed. This is more contentious than it seems as some purists insist walking only. But if Chaucer’s pilgrims could ferry across rivers, then so can I. And the South Cornish Coast does have a few river and estuary inlets in the way. 😀
5. Plan to walk on average ten miles per day. As I say, I am in no hurry, and I know from past experience (when I was younger and fitter) that every step after ten miles can be very tiring.
6. Use waymarked Long Distance Paths and when possible, complete them if it only adds a day or two to the total. This first walk is all along the much longer 600 mile South West Coastal Path (SWCP) so no problems there. Hopefully one day I will fill in the rest 😉
7. Try to stay overnight as close to next day start as possible. This is simply to get started early each morning rather than delay and start late.
 

So there we have it. I’ll take some classic reading with me (probably The Aeneid by Virgil and Livy’s War with Hannibal, but won’t be posting anything until my return in May. Keep reading and wish me luck!!

168. Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton (c.25 BC- 50 AD)

168. Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton (c.25 BC- 50 AD)

Plot:   Callirhoe is blessed/cursed with such exceptional beauty that all men fall desperately in love with her. Although she marries Chaereas, the Gods ensure that their life together is filled with turmoil. Jealousy, entombment, abduction by pirates, attacks by brigands, slavery, adultery, crucifixion, courtroom drama and war test their love.

My copy is the Loeb Classical Library volume, edited and translated by G. P. Goold. (ISBN 0674995309). The painting included above is Callirhoe, painted by Raymond Auguste Quinsac Monvoisin (1794-1870)

My thoughts:  Who doesn’t love a good melodrama?  Possibly the first (earliest surviving) novel, this was a very short and easy read. It could have easily been turned to comedy or tragedy.

Callirhoe frequently curses her own beauty which makes her a target, but also keeps her safe from most harm. Other women are so overwhelmed that they cannot begin to feel jealous, while the powerful men who lust after her are rendered faint from just seeing her, and loathe to do anything which will upset her. The rich Ionian who buys her from the pirates, the local governor and even the King of Persia are all smitten.

The author makes it clear that the Gods are to blame (Love and Fortune mostly) but not from spite or envy.

“Was it not enough for you, Fortune, to have unjustly accused me to Chaereas? … your slanders led me to the grave; now it is to the lawcourt of the King. I have become the gossip of both Asia and Europe. … O treacherous beauty, given me by nature only that earth might be filled with slanders about me! When others enter the courtroom they beg for kindness and sympathy, but my fear is that I may please the eye of the judge”                            Book 5,  page 253

Also interesting that the author Chariton seems to have deliberately interwoven well-known lines from other Greek works (mainly The Iliad and The Odyssey,  but also Herodotus and Thucydides) to draw parallels with the emotions and actions of his characters with heroes and heroines from these other works.

Digressions/diversions:

The King of Persia rides into battle against the Egyptian forces boasting a bow and quiver of the finest Chinese craftmanship. Trade with China had reached the Greco-Roman world.

Personal rating: Not a famous or grand work, but I was well ready for a simple, relaxing read. 6/10.

Next :  The poetry of Propertius.

 

167. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books I-V, by Livy

167. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books I-V, by Livy

Plot:   The first five books of Livy’s History of Rome, stretching from its establishment (dated around 757 BC) up to the Gaulish invasion of 390 BC.

My copy is the Penguin Black classic translated by Aubrey De Selincourt (ISBN 9780140448092)

My thoughts:  Livy is writing here on events 400-700 years before his time, so much is based on previous historians and legends. As he himself admits several times:

“one cannot hope for accuracy when dealing with a past so remote and with authorities so antiquated”  (Book II.21, page 132)

Or more poetically

“the mists of antiquity cannot always be pierced”  (Book IV.24 page 315)

The history of Rome traditionally starts with the arrival of Aeneas and his followers escaping the fall of Troy, and depending on the version, being either welcomed or victorious in securing a foothold in Laurentum in Italy. A string of kings from Aeneas’ lineage followed, until twin boys were conceived upon a Vestal Virgin by the god Mars. Cast adrift on the Tiber to drown, the twins Romulus and Remus were succoured by a she-wolf until found by the king’s herdsman. They grow to manhood, quarrel over who is rightfully King, and Romulus strikes Remus down.

Finding themselves short of enough women to ensure the survival of their settlement, the Romans approach their neighbouring cities, but no one is willing to allow their daughters to intermarry.  The Romans instead host a festival and then abduct the young women. After some years the Sabine tribe believe themselves strong enough to rescue the women, and the fierce battle is interrupted by the women forcing themselves between the warring armies to insist on peace.

Eventually the succession of kings is replaced with a Senate of aristocrats (patricians) and two elected consuls to act as magistrates and generals.

Books II, III and IV are a constant series of battles over a hundred years between the Romans and the various surrounding tribes. The clockwork predictability of these conflicts is only interrupted by equally regular internal political squabbles between the aristocratic class and the commoners (plebians) and their elected representatives the Tribunes;  who use their ability to muster and form armies from the common people to try and score political changes to do with agricultural land reform and party representation. This internal bickering is seen as weakness by their neighbouring cities, leading them to attack again, and so on and so on. This repetitive pattern soon becomes tedious to the non-scholar, and I started to wish for the excitement of the years of the end of the Republic.

Book V is remarkably more interesting, as it breaks the pattern – firstly by the Romans laying siege to the current enemy Falerii, and the episode where a Faleriian schoolteacher abducts the children of the city’s noble families and delivers them to the Romans as hostages, and the Roman general Camillus returns them to Falerii,  with the schoolteacher stripped, bound and being thwacked by the kids with sticks Camillus provides.

“Neither my people nor I, who command their army, happen to share your tastes. You are a scoundrel and your offer is worthy of you. As political entities, there is no bond of union between Rome and Falerii, but we are bound together nonetheless and always shall be, by the bonds of a common humanity. War has its laws as peace has, and we have learned to wage war with decency no less than with courage. We have drawn the sword not against children … but against men armed like ourselves …. These men, your countrymen, you have done your best to humble by this vile and unprecedented act … I shall bring them low … by the Roman arts of courage, persistence and arms.”

(Book V.27 , page 401)

The Faleriians were so impressed by Camillus that they immediately sued for peace and willingly put themselves under the dominion of Rome.

Of course, politics later interferes and Camillus is banished from Rome.

But then the local squabbles are superceded by the invasion of Italy by Gaulish tribes from beyond the Alps. For once, the Roman generals are overwhelmed and respond very ineffectively, and the Gauls literally walk into Rome through undefended open gates. The civilians and Senate are trapped inside the Captiol and are close to bribing the Gauls to leave them alone, when Camillus returns from exile and scares the Gauls away.

Digressions/diversions:
When a victorious Roman general returns to Rome, he may be granted a Triumph by the Senate (in which he enters the streets of the city with his troops) or the lesser honour of an Ovation (entering without his troops) – damned by faint praise!

Personal rating: The repetitive content of books II-IV made for monotonous reading, but book V saved the day and lifts it to a 5/10.

The reads in between: 

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King.

Stephen King’s latest horror/fantasy is a father-and-son joint work : an apocolyptic saga similar to The Stand and Desperation, but the characters are not as clear-cut good and evil.

“All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. if awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent….”

Only one woman seems immune to the sleeping sickness and some men will do anything to get control of her. A huge cast leads to a three-way battle and civilization-changing decisions. Not his best work but still eminently readable.

Next :  Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton

Don’t call Cheat!!! The Classics Club Spin March/April 2018

The Classics Club (https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/ ) has announced their new spin number for the months of March and April.

For those unfamiliar, the concept is that you create a list of twenty classics (before the spin number is decided), and then read the title on your list which matches the number they announce aiming to finish the book by the deadline, in this case April 30th. This is the seventeenth time they have run this spin challenge.

As I read my classics in as close to chronological order as I can, I make my challenge to read all the titles on my list down to the chosen number e.g. if the spin number is thirteen, I try to read books 1 through to 13 on my list. Since I am traveling throughout April, I wasn’t confident I could participate this time given the vagaries of travel.

The announcement of the spin number being 3 however, means I only have to read the next three books on my list, which are

  • The Early History of Rome by Livy
  • Chaireas and Kallirhoe by Chariton
  • The Love Poetry (Elegies) of Propertius

This seems manageable so I will add my hat to the ring. After all I already had the list created so its not really cheating …..     😉