Month: July 2018

Another Classic Club spin Aug 2018

Another Classic Club spin Aug 2018

The new head honchos at The Classics Club have announced a classics spin for August.

To play, you make a list of 20 titles of your own “To Be Read” classics, and post your spin list on your blog before the 1st of August. On that day, they will announce the chosen number between 1 and 20, and players will try to finish the corresponding book on their own list before the end of the month.

In previous spins, I have tried to read all the books on my spin list between 1 and the chosen number to maintain my chronological quest. Obviously there is a risk with a high number chosen that I won’t get the chance to eat, drink, wash or sleep throughout August. Ah well, some things must be sacrificed in the name of literature!

Here is my Spin List. Perhaps I can survive a high number.

  1. Oedipus by Seneca
  2. Agamemnon by Seneca
  3. Apocolocyntosis by Seneca
  4. Thyestes by Seneca
  5. The Phoenecian Women by Seneca
  6. Satyricon by Petronius
  7. Octavia (wrongly attributed to) Seneca
  8. New Testament : Matthew
  9. New Testament : Mark
  10. New Testament : Luke
  11. New Testament : John
  12. New Testament : Acts
  13. New Testament : Epistles
  14. New Testament : Revelation
  15. Natural History [selections] by Pliny
  16. The Jewish War by Jospehus
  17. Parallel Lives I (The Rise and Fall of Athens) by Plutarch
  18. Parallel Lives II (Sparta) by Plutarch
  19. Parallel Lives III (The Age of Alexander) by Plutarch
  20. The Kama Sutra

and I am willing to bet now which number my blog followers are hoping for!

183. Hercules Furens (Hercules Mad) by Seneca (c. 54 AD)

183. Hercules Furens (Hercules Mad) by Seneca (c. 54 AD)

Plot:  While Hercules is away capturing Cerebrus, the triple headed hound that guards the Underworld; Lycus kills King Creon of Thebes and usurps the throne. To try and legitimise his rulership, he demands Megara, daughter of Creon and wife to Hercules, marry him instead. Hercules returns from the last of his twelve labours in time to kill Lycus, but Juno is still furious with him, and drives him temporarily insane, so that he believes his own wife and children are enemies as well.

My version was from Seneca, The Complete Tragedies, published by University of Chicago Press and edited by Shadi Bartsch (Vol. 2, ISBN 9780226013602)

My thoughts :  Seneca continues retelling the Greek tragedies of Euripides, and this one seems to stick pretty close to the earlier version. Seneca does stress different parts of the story, so we have the first Act with Juno/Hera ranting over the failures of the various monsters she has sent against Hercules, only to have their very defeats magnify his fame and praise, instead of being his downfall. Now she decides to make Hercules himself his own undefeatable enemy and destroy him psychologically, by having him murder his loved ones in a fit of induced madness.

Other versions of Hercules’ life say that his twelve labours for King Eurystheus were in penance for these murders. Fetching Cerebrus was the final labour which is what Hercules is doing immediately prior to the events in this play. This could have led to a cosmic circular life of torture, looping back to the start of the labours again and again – Juno should have thought of that!

I am finding Seneca’s versions more dramatic than Euripides, and also enjoying the poetic nature of his descriptions; although many critics over the centuries didn’t rate him highly. You would also have to wonder how a Stoic philosopher could write tragedies : obviously he wanted something different to do on his days off.

In Hercules Furens, we also appear to have the violence depicted on stage for the first time, rather than communicated by a messenger, giving it immediacy that previous tragedies have lacked.

Favourite lines/passages:

Theseus describes the road into Hell (not apparently paved with good intentions)

“the path does not at first start in blind darkness; a faint glow from behind of light relinquished and a doubtful glimmer of the stricken sun fade and trick the sight … from there spread broad zones with empty spaces, where the entire human race can sink down and enter. To go is not laborious: the road itself leads down… within calm Lethe flows, its gulf immense, with placid shallows, ousting cares. Lest too great an opportunity for return lies bared, she coils her sluggish stream with many bends”

but soon the horror and despair arises..

“bleak Famine lies there with emaciated jaws, and tardy Shame conceals its guilty face. Fear and Terror, Death and gritting Pain and black Grief follow, shivering Sickness, Wars girt in steel; secluded at the end slow Age assists its steps with walking stick.”       Act 3, lines 668-696

and there’s more

“A foul old man, horrid in dress and mien, guards this river and ferries the fearful ghosts. His unkempt beard is straggly, a knot constricts his ugly cloak, his gaunt eyes glint; the ferryman himself directs his bark with a long pole. Bringing to shore his boat empty of load, he seeks more shades.”                                                      Act 3, lines 764-770.

Personal rating:  7/10

Kimmy’s comment:  enjoyed the description of Cerebrus (sort of)

“Here the fierce Stygian dog that guards the realm alarms the shades, tossing its triple heads with awesome noise. Snakes lick the head, filthy with slime: its mane bristles with vipers and a long reptile hisses at its coiled tail.”            Act 3, lines 784-788.

Other reading:   Started Isaac Asimov’s robot stories as collected in The Complete Robot.

Next :  Lets have a look at Seneca’s less dramatic side with his Dialogues and Essays.

182. The Trojan Women (Troades) by Seneca (c.54 AD)

182. The Trojan Women (Troades) by Seneca (c.54 AD)

Plot:  Troy has fallen, and the captive Trojan women lament their loss. Queen Hecuba mourns for all Troy as well as her husband King Priam (killed mercilessly by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles). Andromache mourns for her husband Hector. Yet more agony is in store: Pyrrhus demands Polyxena, Hecuba’s daughter, for a death bride for Achilles, to be sacrificed in bridal dress on his tomb; while Andromache’s young son Astyanax is be thrown from the remaining tower of Troy and dashed on the rocks below, to appease the gods and provide safe passage for the Greek ships.

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 :

With a larger cast than the previous two Senecan plays, and two storylines, the play feels rushed within its short space.

I don’t remember Pyrrhus featuring largely in The Iliad or Euripides’ play on the same subject, but here he is arrogant and bloodthirsty, with little nobility. He kills Priam (an old man) savagely, then demands Polyxena as a bridal sacrifice for his father Achilles. When Agamemnon declares that the Trojans have suffered enough, Pyrrhus has the audacity to  threaten Agamemnon himself. When the seer Calchas is counselled, he definitely insists that both Polyxena and Astyanax must die to ensure a safe return to Greece (just as Iphigenia was sacrificed by the Greeks to provide passage to Troy ten years before)

Ulysses is sent to Andromache to find and bring Astyanax back for sacrifice, and Helen is sent to trick Polyxena into thinking she is marrying Pyrrhus. Both victims go to their deaths fearlessly.

Favourite lines/passages:

Each act finishes with a speech by the Chorus. Normally I hurry through these asides to get back to the action, but this time I found something special in the speech that closes Act II, where the Chorus ponder death

Chorus : “Is it true, or a story to deceive the timid, that shadows live apart from the bodies we buried …

Or do we wholly die and afterward no part of us persists when, with a fugitive breath,

The spirit has mixed with the clouds and entered the atmosphere …

Whatever the sun knows when it rises, whatever it knows when it sets,

Whatever Ocean with its cerulean tides washes as twice it ebbs and twice it floods,

Will be swept away by time with its Pegasus-like stride ..


So we all pursue our fate, and he who has touched the river

By which the Gods on high swear oaths, exists no more.


After death there is nothing, and death itself is nothing –

The final turning post of a quick-run course …

… empty talk and pointless words, a story like an anxious dream.

You ask where you will lie when life is done?

With things that are unborn.”                                        Act II, lines 371-408


The definition of “contumacious” :  wilfully disobedient to authority

Personal rating:  6/10

Next :  Hercules Furens by Seneca

181. Medea by Seneca (c.50 AD)

181. Medea by Seneca (c.50 AD)

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”

Plot:  Jason must marry Creusa, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth, in order to protect himself and his sons from the revenge of King Pelias’s brother.  This means abandoning his current wife Medea who has forsaken everything to ensure Jason and the Argonauts’ successful capture of the Golden Fleece and return to Greece. Medea not only turned traitor to her father to help Jason, but in doing so brought about the death of her own brother. Now she is to be exiled from Corinth.

Be sure she will not go quietly.

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 :  Another familiar tale from Greek tragedy, and again also told by Euripides (see my earlier post

The story of Medea is so horrifying that I can see why 500 years after Euripides’ version, and even today it captures the imagination. The reader alternates between pity for Medea in  her isolation, abandonment, hopelessness and rage, and horror at her past and future actions as she contemplates the most horrendous crimes a mother can conceive.

Whereas Euripides’ version dwells on describing the horror of the murders, Seneca visualizes for us the sight of Medea creating her dark magical poisons, calling down venoms from all the serpents in the constellations to prepare an agonizing fate for her rival, and in her madness evolving into a wild and vicious version of herself.

The editor’s notes mentioned that there were doubts if these plays were acted or recited, or both. Thinking this as I read, they would make great recitations for weekend parties in manor houses of not very nice people a la Agatha Christie mysteries.

Favourite lines/passages:

Medea :  “this day will perpetrate .. a deed all future time will talk about. I’ll attack the gods and shake the Universe”     Act IV. Lines 424-425

Digressions/diversions:  ‘fescennine’ : scurrilous or obscene.

Personal rating:  8/10

Next :  Continuing Seneca’s tragedies with The Trojan Women



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 )

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

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