Category: 1st century BC

173. Odes by Horace (c. 23-12 BC)

173. Odes by Horace (c. 23-12 BC)

Plot:   Four books of lyric poetry dealing with a range of topics, including ample praise for Augustus Caesar, as well as Horace’s patron Maecenas, his friends Virgil and Varius, and the Gods. A recurring theme, particularly in Book 1, is to live for today : Carpe diem!

My version was The Odes and Epodes of Horace : a modern English verse translation by Joseph Clancy (University of Chicago Press, 1960)

My thoughts: I rarely warm to poetry so I confess I pushed through Horace’s Odes quickly. I found them less interesting than his Epodes, but did enjoy his repeated advice to enjoy life.

“All of life is only a little, no long-term plans are allowed.”  I.4

“I am a poet of parties …”  I.6

“Today, banish worry with wine ; back to the deep sea tomorrow”  I.7

“Take the chill off, piling plenty of logs by the fireside, and pour out the wine … with a free hand. Leave the rest to the Gods, …. Do not ask of tomorrow what it may hold; mark in the black each day you are granted by Chance: you are young … now is the time for … soft whispers as night covers lovers meeting, and now is the time for giveaway giggles from the far corner and the girl in hiding”   I.9

“Who can say if the Gods will add to our present sum tomorrow’s bonus of hours? Keep all you can from your sticky-fingered heir by giving now to your precious self.”   IV.7

And most famously Carpe diem.  Not so much about taking the leap on a new adventure as I has mistakenly defined it myself, but to make every day special.

“Reap today: save no hopes for tomorrow.”   I.11

Favourite lines/passages:

Besides his good advice above, I also liked his verbal attack on the unknown gardener who originally planted the tree that nearly killed him.

“He planted you a day the omens were dark, whoever he was, and his defiling hands raised you as a tree to destroy his descendants and disgrace the neighbourhood. He was, I should think, a man who would crush his own father’s throat and at midnight spatter the sanctuary of home with the blood of a guest; and he had dealings with Colchic poisons and every conceivable kind of vice, that man who stood you on my farm, sad excuse for a tree, to fall on the head of your undeserving owner…”   II, 13

 

Some of his reflections on love:

“I burn with her charming teasing, and with the tempting yes-and-no of her glances.”  I.19

And his praise of poetry as a means of everlasting glory, including his own.

“My memorial is done: it will outlast bronze. It is taller than the Pyramids’ royal mounds, and no rain and corrosion , no raging Northwind can tear it down, nor the innumerable years in succession and the transitory ages. I will not wholly die; the greater part of me shall escape the goddess of death: I will grow on, kept alive by posterity’s praise”     III.30

Personal rating:   only a 4/10 overall

Other reading:

The Regulators by Stephen King under his pen name Richard Bachman. Sort of a deliberate alternate-universe retelling of another King book, Desperation, but tied to consumerism and television. A young boy is possessed by a demon which uses its powers to bring the boy’s favourite cartoon heroes to terrifying life and inflict carnage on a suburban American street. Mesmerising but not his best.

 

The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude. British Library reprint of the 1935 murder whodunnit/howdunnit proved irresistible as I was actually walking the coastal path where the murder was set. Relatively low number of suspects and a very low key single clue still built nicely thanks to good writing. Enjoyed.

 

Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?  by Philip K. Dick.

The scifi book filmed as Blade Runner. Much more cerebral than the movie, with the nature/difference between real and fake a major thread through the story. With androids almost indistinguishable from humans (sometimes even to themselves) the ability to show and feel empathy towards animals and people leads to a social urge to possess a live animal as an expensive status symbol. Rick Deckard the bounty hunter assigned to terminate rogue androids, is driven to spend all his pay on upgrading from an electric sheep, while his wife is entranced with the prevalent religion Mercerism which allows people to share a virtual religious pilgrimage as a way of bonding with others. Very good and prophetic scifi.

Next :  The War with Hannibal (Books XXI-XXX of Ab Urbe Condita) by Livy

 

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172. The Aeneid by Virgil (19 BC)

172. The Aeneid by Virgil (19 BC)

“What adverse destiny dogs you through these many kinds of danger? What rough power brings you from sea to land in savage places?”   Book I,  lines 841-444

Plot:   Aeneas, surviving prince from the fall of Troy, sets sail with his followers, guided by Apollo  to journey to Italy and fulfill his destiny as the founder of what will become the Roman Empire. After years wandering the seas, they establish themselves on Latin soil, but must face more warfare before they can prevail.

My copy was an excellent translation by Robert Fitzgerald in the King Penguin imprint, published 1985 (ISBN 014007449X)

My thoughts: Virgil takes up the baton from Homer, both in terms of style and subject. The first half of the epic Aeneid recounts their seven years of wanderings, starting with the fall of Troy : the fooled Trojans taking the Wooden Horse into their walled city despite the warnings of Cassandra and the suspicious sounds coming from the belly of the beast (even to the point of partially dismantling their gates to get the huge construct inside), the resulting slaughter and escape, and their subsequent Odyssean-like adventures across the Mediterranean.

Aeneas and his followers are given shelter by Dido, Queen of Carthage. Driven on by his destiny, Aeneas rejects her offer of a home and ruling with her, breaking her heart and driving her to suicide in her anguish, setting up the enmity between Rome and Carthage which will erupt in the Punic Wars centuries later. In fact, Virgil uses his reader’s knowledge of the subsequent history of Rome to load his poem with prophesies of what will come to pass : the heroes and generals not yet born who will ensure Rome’s greatness, and indulge in a little propaganda and take advantage of his theme to flatter the current Caesar, Augustus.

The second half describes the war fought against the local tribes once the Trojans do set foot on Italian soil, recalling the desperate siege and battles of the Iliad. At all times, their adversaries are spurred on by Hera, who takes every opportunity to incite war and misery on the Trojans, breaking treaties, and littering their travels with dangers. The last book ends quite abruptly with the final sword thrust of  the anticipated showdown between Aeneas and Turnus, the enraged leader of the Latins. Apparently Virgil was to revise and perhaps write more, but died in 19 BC while travelling back from Greece.

I had read The Aeneid many years ago, but remembered very little. This translation was both easy to read and follow, quite graphic in some of the battle scenes, and heart wrenching in the fate of Dido and the other doomed characters.

Favourite lines/passages:

Rowing past the whirlpool Charybdis

“They bent hard to the rowing as commanded, and Palinurus in the leading ship swung his creaking prow over to port. The whole flotilla followed him in turn with oars and wind. On every rolling sea we rose to heaven, and in the abysmal trough sank down into the realm of shades. Three times the rock cliffs between caverns boomed, three times we saw the wave shock and the flung spume drenching the very stars. The wind at last and sun went down together, leaving us spent, and in the dark as to our course, we glided quietly onward to the Cyclops’ shore”  Book III, lines 745-757

Description of Atlas

“… he saw the craggy flanks and crown of patient Atlas. Giant Atlas, balancing the sky upon his peak – his pine-forested head in vapor cowled beaten by wind and rain. Snow lay upon his shoulders, rills cascaded down his ancient chin and beard a-bristle, caked with ice. ”  Book IV, lines 336-343.

and pretty much the entire presence of Camilla, female warrior in Book XI.

“Amid the carnage, like an Amazon, Camilla rode exultant, one breast bared for fighting ease, her quiver at her back. At times she flung slim javelins thick and fast, at times, tireless, caught up her two-edged axe … when she gave ground, forced to retreat, with bow unslung in flight she turned and aimed her arrows”  Book XI, lines 881-889.

Personal rating:   This translation in particular was excellent.  8/10

Kimmy’s rating: As I read this book while hiking the South Cornish path, Kimmy missed out on this one. But she enthusiastically greeted me on my return and even now is clamouring for more attention as I try and type.

Next :   Odes by Horace

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)

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

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.

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.