Month: March 2018

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 :  TheHeroides by Ovid

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.


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.

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 ( ) 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 …..     😉

1001 Children’s Books you must read before you grow up 1

1001 Children’s Books you must read before you grow up 1

Yes, I succumbed. Was there really any doubt? Of course this is likely to be a very subjective list (aren’t they all??) but every time I thought of one of my favourite children’s books, there it was. So what else could I do?

If children’s literature leaves you bored, just stop reading here (I bet you don’t!)

This reference book is divided into 5 chapters : (i) ages 0-3, (ii) ages 3+ , (iii) ages 5+ , (iv) ages 8+  and (v) ages 12+ . I found early on, even with picture books, that reading about the story spoilt the surprise often associated with picture books, so I recommend enjoying the books first before reading the reference entry. I will try not to give too much away in my posts.

Many of these books will be out of print, and some will never be. But that adds a seeking aspect to the challenge which was impossible to resist.

Let’s start with five of the picture books randomly chosen from the 0-3 pages. Each one of these is probably someone’s childhood treasure.

Rosie’s Walk, by Pat Hutchins

Rosie the Hen goes for a walk around the farmyard, oblivious to the hungry fox close behind. The illustrations, although with a limited palette, are bright and reminiscent of American folk art carving. Fun story but not in my treasure box.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle.

The hungry bug eats his way through a lot of food but isn’t satisfied easily. Little holes in the pages show his progress. The colours and shapes are raw and for me, unlovely.

Each Peach Pear Plum, by Allan and Janet Ahlberg.

This was the best of the five by far. I loved the peek-a-boo searching, the soft colours and fun nursery rhyme characters. The title and cover don’t begin to do the tale justice. Added to my list for the grandkids.

Elmer by David McKee.

Bright colours, excellent fun and unexpected events abound as Elmer, the only multicoloured elephant in the jungle, decides its time for a change.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury.

This one is someone else’s classic, but despite the fun sounds and words as the family pursue their bear hunt, it just didn’t work for me. The last illustration left me sad.

So who’s rushing out to their library tomorrow to raid the picture books?






Mr Creosote and the wafer thin mint

Mr Creosote and the wafer thin mint

Those of you familiar with the Monty Python movie “The Meaning of Life” will be indelibly scarred by the enormously obese Mr Creosote and the result of him indulging in one last “wafer-thin” mint. If you haven’t seen this skit, it can be found on YouTube but beware – don’t watch after eating, experiencing an upset tummy or with a severe hangover.

The reason I mention him is to do with my similar inability to resist – in this case another book list. Having already committed to reading as much classic literature in chronological order as I can manage in my remaining years (which I currently estimate as 1300 – titles not years that is), and assorted other challenges (stand up Martin Edwards’ Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books) and certain authors’ collected works (Wodehouse, Christie), I found my gaze lingering today far too long on 1001 Children’s Books to Read before You Grow Up by Julia Eccleshare.

Already owning 1001 Movies … and 1001 Walks …, I didnt feel inclined to buy said title, but there it sat in the stack shelves of my library. So of course I had to borrow it.

I can feel the stomach walls giving way as I type …… beware!


165. Epodes by Horace (30 BC)

165. Epodes by Horace (30 BC)

Plot:   17 short poems, a mixture of vicious attacks, lovesick swoons, and social commentary.

My thoughts: 

“The Epodes are, on the whole, the least interesting and satisfactory work of Horace”          W. Y. Sellar, Horace and the Elegaic Poets, 1891.

Despite the less-than-ringing endorsement above, I headed back to the library and grabbed several different editions to try and find the most approachable. The easiest to follow and most attractive, mimicking the long-short alternative line structure used by Horace was found in  The Odes and Epodes of Horace : a modern English verse translation by Joseph Clancy (University of Chicago Press, 1960)

Horace has become more strident and personal, although the poems attacking others are unsatisfying vague – readers outside his own circle of friends and intimates would not know who Horace is ranting against, or wishing to be shipwrecked. The only target named is Canidia (the witch from Satire I, viii) who reappears in Epode 5 in a horrific scene where she and her accomplices plan to sacrifice a young boy by burying him up to the neck and starving him, while food lies tantalisingly close, in order to plunder his remains for the final ingredient for a love potion; and again in the last Epode where the subject of the poem (Horace himself?) is begging her to remove the curse afflicting him.

The other remarkable Epodes were number 2 which describes in increasingly sentimental and idealised words, the idyllic pastoral life of ease as imagined by a city moneylender,

“when through his lands Autumn lifts his head

with a crown of ripening fruit,

how delighted he is, plucking the grafted pears

and the purple clusters of grapes ….

How pleasant to rest, sometimes beneath an old oak,

sometimes on a carpet of grass;

all the while the brook glides by between its high banks,

the birds are trilling in the trees,

and the splashing waters of springs play counterpoint,

a summons to easy slumber”

and number 3 which describes Horace’s overwhelming horror after he realises his patron has added some poisonous plant into Horaces’s meal.

“deadlier than hemlock … Have I been tricked by a salad with a dressing of viper’s blood?” 

Yes, it’s Garlic!!!

Personal rating:  Enjoyed these more than the Satires. Across all 17 poems, a 5/10

Next :  The Georgics by Virgil