Month: April 2018

166. The Georgics by Virgil (c.29 BC)

166. The Georgics by Virgil (c.29 BC)

Plot:   A little like Hesiod’s Work and Days, as it provides agricultural instruction, but in far more tranquil and enjoyable poetry. The poem is broken into four sections, the first for growing crops, the second for caring for vines and fruit trees, then animal husbandry, and lastly beekeeping.

I read the Farrar, Straus and Garoux edition translated by David Ferry (ISBN 0374530319)

My thoughts:  Virgil alternates between practical instruction, and more lyric and pastoral fancies. I can’t say I was enthralled to start, although plenty have before me – Dryden calling The Georgics “the best poem by the best poet”.

By the time I got to the third section, I was starting to enjoy the work, especially the more pastoral scenes, when Virgil decided to end the chapter with a litany of livestock diseases and death.

Favourite lines/passages:

My favourite scenes are not directly rural (Virgil casts a pretty broad net)

My inner Ben Hur particularly liked the action of this chariot race

“Headlong in frenzied competition, all

The drivers’ hearts pounding with frantic hope

Of being the first and fear of being the last,

And on and on they go, and round and round,

Lap after lap, the fiery wheels revolving,

The drivers flailing their whips, now bending low,

Stooping over the reins, now rising up –

It looks like they’re carried flying up and out

Into empty air – no stopping them, no rest,

Clouds of yellow sand blown back in the eyes

Of those who follow after, the foaming breath

Of the gasping panting horses wetting the backs

Of the chariot drivers ahead, so great their love

Of glory. So great their love of victory.”     Third Georgic  (page 101)

And this more mellow ocean scene

“The sea-swells rise against the keels, and

the gulls fly inland crying in their flight,

and the little sea-coots run along the shore,

looking as if they’re frolicking as they go”   First Georgic  (p. 31)

And this explanation of where baby bees come from

“And you will be surprised that the bees are never

Known to indulge in sexual intercourse; they never

Dissipate or enervate their bodies

By making love; they do not bring forth children

By labour of birth; instead, they gather them

By plucking the little babies with their mouths

From the leaves of trees and from the sweetest herbs.”  

Fourth Georgic  (page 157)

 

Digressions/diversions:

Pulled up short when it was claimed early in Book 1 that castor oil came from the testicles of beavers. No wonder it tastes awful! In actual fact, modern castor oil comes from the seeds of the castor oil plant; but in ancient times, a substitute (castoreum) was extracted from the castor sacs of beavers (between the testicles and anus) to be used in medicines and perfumes. This digression led me to reading about the improved status of the European beaver, which is being reintroduced across Europe and Asia, including China and Mongolia in the east, and Scotland and England in the west.

Personal rating: 5/10

Kimmy’s rating: I actually heard her snoring as I read, so probably not high.

Also in that year: 29 BC. Octavius (later the Emperor Augustus) closes the doors of the Temple of Janus in the Forum, signifying that Rome is at peace (finally, but no doubt briefly)


Next :
 The first set of Livy’s surviving volumes. The Early History of Rome (Books I-V)

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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

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