Category: Latin literature

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

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)



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)

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

164. Satires by Horace (c.35-30 BC)

164. Satires by Horace (c.35-30 BC)

Plot:   Two books of poetry gently attacking men’s foibles.

My versions this time were (i) The Satires by Horace, translated by A. M. Juster (University of Pennsylvania, 9780812240900) and (ii) my trusty Penguin edition Horace, Satires and Epistles; Persius, Satires, translated by Niall Rudd (0140455086)

My thoughts:  Trying to break my addiction to Penguin Classics, I brought home a nice shiny library copy of Juster’s rhyming version, but after four attempts at trying to follow Horace’s train of thought, I had to admit defeat and buy an e-copy of Rudd. After reading his introduction and explanation of the structure, I realised the main section of the poems in Book 1 (published circa 33 BC) often contain an unlabelled dialogue which presents different sides of the argument (these dialogues are more clearly labelled in Horace’s second book of Satires, published around 30 BC). After that, I read Rudd’s prose translation, checking back with Juster on verses I especially like to see how he handled them.

Horace was the son of an ex-slave, who left university and joined Brutus’ armies and was routed at the Battle of Philipi, only to return home to find his beloved father dead and his farmland inheritance confiscated. Luckily, his writing left a favourable impression with Virgil, who introduced him to a wealthy patron Maecenas, which set Horace up for the rest of his days.

Although labelled satires, these poems are more rebukes against various vices and follies – greed, ambition, adultery, intolerance, gluttony etc. Unlike his predecessor, Horace rarely attacks individuals by name – he is not barbed or abusive but aims his criticism as suggestions for us all

“if you expect your friend to put up with your boils

You’ll forget about his warts”                   Satire I, iii   Lines 73-74 (Rudd)

Not all the poems are cast in this mould – some are like letters home on the personal events of Horace’s day, but my favourite was a story of a wooden statue carved from a tree trunk and placed in a paupers’ graveyard who happens to witness two loathsome witches performing black magic and decides ..

“With a sudden report like a burst balloon I let a fart

Which split my fig-wood buttocks; the hags scurried off downtown;

Canidia dropped her false teeth, the high wig

Tumbled from Sagana’s head …. If only you’d seen it!”         Satire I, viii   Lines 46-50 (Rudd)

And surprisingly one of the last poems in the second book (II, vi) includes Aesop’s fable of the town mouse and the country mouse!

Favourite lines/passages:

“We can rarely find a man who says

He has lived a happy life and who, when his time is up

Contentedly leaves the world like a guest who has had his fill”        Satire I, i   Lines 117-119 (Rudd)

“Winter may be drawing the snowy day into a smaller circle, but go I must”    Satire II, vi  Lines 25-26 (Rudd)

And this statement from Rudd’s introduction resonated with me:

“[Horace] did believe that men could spare themselves a great deal of misery by acceptance, restraint, good humour and tolerance”  p.18-19

Personal rating:  4/10

Also in those years:

Herod is made King of Judea by the Romans (37 BC)

The second Roman Triumvirate (Lepidus, Antony and Octavius) begins to split apart, as Lepidus and Octavius spar over each other’s lands in Africa and Sicily. Antony marries Octavius’ sister Octavia, averting civil war; but then goes and falls in love and bigamously marries Cleopatra (36 BC). Octavius (the future Emperor Augustus) defeats Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet at the Battle of Actium (31 BC), and the losing couple escape to Egypt and commit suicide (30 BC)

The reads in between: 

The Man with Two Left Feet, and other stories, by P. G. Wodehouse. Notable for the first appearance of Bertie Wooster and (albeit briefly) his butler Jeeves in the second story. A mixed bag of stories, including two told from a dog’s point of view. Still not old Plum’s very best, but even an average Wodehouse is streets ahead of most authors.

Dragonkeeper by Carole Wilkinson. A slave girl in ancient China runs away with the Emperor’s last dragon. Aimed at readers 10-14 and very enjoyable despite one unpleasant scene towards the end. Recommended.

Next :  Epodes by Horace

163. The Eclogues by Virgil (c. 42-39 BC)

163. The Eclogues by Virgil (c. 42-39 BC)

Plot:   Ten pastoral poems set in the idyllic countryside, full of singing goatherds; sometimes with the bitter undercurrent of rejected love, but also topical themes such as agricultural dispossession as farmers are driven off their farms, which are then given to demobbed soldiers from the battle at Phillipi.

I read the World’s Classics version The Eclogues, The Georgics, translated by Cecil Day-Lewis (ISBN 0192816438), then looked at some earlier translations from the 16th-19th centuries in the Penguin classic Virgil in English (ISBN 0140423869)

My thoughts: Virgil has been hailed as a bedrock poet of European literature, inspiring a plethora of translations and imitations from the likes of Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Milton, Dryden, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Auden. However the Day-Lewis version left me indifferent, with very little to pass on of interest. More interesting was sampling the various earlier translations, showing how the style of language and literature changes with the ages.

For instance, from Eclogue I, the dispossessed farmer Meliboeus laments his fate in three different versions.

“But the rest of us must go from here and be dispersed — To Scythia, bone-dry Africa, the chalky spate of the Oxus. Even to Britain – that place cut off at the very world’s end. Ah, when will I see my native land again? after long years, or never? — see the turf-dressed roof of my simple cottage, and wondering gaze at the ears of corn that were all my kingdom. To think of some godless soldier owning my well-farmed fallow ….”       (C Day-Lewis, 1963)

“We poor soules must soone to the land cald Affrica packe hence, Some to the farre Scythia, and some must to the swift flood Oaxis, some to Britannia coastes quite parted farre from the whole world. Oh these pastures pure shall I nere more chance to behold yee? And out cottage poore with warme turves coverd about trim. Oh these trim tilde landes, shall a recklesse soldier have them?….”   (William Webbe, 1586)

“But we must roam to parts remote, unknown, under the Torrid and the Frigid Zone. These frozen Scythia, and parcht Affrick those; Cretan Oaxis others must inclose. Some ‘mongst the utmost Britains are confin’d, doomed to an isle from all the world disjoyn’d.

Ah! Must I never more my Country see, but in strange lands an endless Exile be? In my eternal banishment decreed from my poor Cottage, rear’d with turf and reed? Must impious Soldiers all these grounds possess, my fields of standing corn, my fertile Leyes?”  (John Caryll, 1684)

(PS I liked Caryll best)

Digressions/diversions: New word for the day. Stravagueing : to wander aimlessly

Personal rating:  Day-Lewis version : 2.

Also in that year:

To recap …

60 BC Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus form an alliance to further their political ambitions.

58-54 BC   Caesar defeats the Gaulish tribes, and briefly invades Britain (twice)

49 – 45 BC Caesar enters Italy with his armies of Gallic war veterans and eventually defeats Pompey’s forces, attaining supreme power of the Roman world

44 BC Caesar assassinated on the Ides of March by conspirators including Cassius and Brutus

43 BC A second ‘triumvirate’ formed between Marc Antony, Lepidus and Caesar’s adopted son Octavius

42 BC Antony and Octavius defeat Brutus and Cassius at Phillipi.

The reads in between: 

The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham (1956).  Wyndham’s other full-length novels always disappointed me after his excellent The Day of the Triffids, but this collection of science fiction short stories were a joy. The first few are gentle Wellesian tales (Chronoclasm, Time to Rest) but then Wyndham shows a more ruthless layer of steel and horror  with stories like Survival, and Pillar to Post (the latter a cat and mouse game as two men fight for the one body using mind transference across the galaxy). Might be difficult to find a copy, but recommended.

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwall (2017). Looked forward to this a great deal as Cornwall writes excellent and well researched historical novels, especially his Sharpe series. Following Richard Shakespeare, brother to William and a young thief/actor in the latter’s group of players. It started off a little slow without the adventurous setting of his other books, but by halfway I was hooked. To say too much would spoil the ride, but if you liked Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare in Love, or historical action stories …. Recommended.

Next :   Satires by Horace.

162. The Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust c.40 BC

162. The Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust c.40 BC

Plot:   Catiline, frustrated over his failure to be elected consul, and driven by his hatred of Cicero, plans a rebellion to overthrow the Roman Senate, raising an army of the disaffected, and simultaneously planning a series of assassinations, massacres and arson attacks to sweep Rome. Forewarned by Gaulish conspirators, Cicero announces the plot in the Senate and the ringleaders remaining in Rome are captured and executed. Catiline and his remaining men are forced to turn and fight to the death against the pursuing Roman army.

Published by Penguin in a single volume with The Jugurthine War, edited by S.A. Handford (ISBN 0140441328)

My thoughts:  A lot of moralising about the rise and fall of the Roman character leads us to believe Catiline is the worst sort of debaucher and killer imaginable, so it is a surprise when Sallust’s depiction of the battle which marked the end of the Catiline conspiracy shows the valour of the rebels in facing their defeat. It ends with very visual evidence of the horrors of civil war.

Also interesting was the Senate’s difficulty in deciding on the punishment of the captured conspirators, with Caesar suggesting the then-novel idea of long term imprisonment rather than exile or death; and the moral question of exacting punishment before the criminal deed could be committed.

Favourite lines/passages:

Before even starting the text, this sentence in the introduction by the editor caught my eye

“Up to the year 64, Catiline seems to have been merely an ambitious careerist who in spite of a taste for dissipation and homicide had something likable about him”   (page 163)

And Catiline’s supposed parting shot at the Senate after Cicero’s denouncement:

“Since I am encompassed by foes, and hounded to desperation, I will check the fire that threatens to consume me by pulling everything down about your ears!”   (page 199)

Personal rating:  5

Next : The Eclogues of Virgil

161. The Jugurthine War, by Sallust.  c .40 BC

161. The Jugurthine War, by Sallust. c .40 BC

Plot:   Historical account of the North African Jugurthine War (112-105 BC), where the adopted Prince Jugurtha slew his step brothers and attempted to make himself King of the Roman Province of ‘Africa’ (modern day Tunisia), opposed by the Roman forces led unsuccessfully by a series of Roman generals until the leadership of Marius.

Published by Penguin in a single volume with Sallust’s other surviving work, The Conspiracy of Catiline. Translated by S. A. Handford (ISBN 0140441328)

My thoughts:  Unlike Caesar’s reports of honourable battles and pardons, Sallust paints a picture of treachery, bribery, slaughter, incompetence and cowardice, both on the battlefront and in the halls of power on both sides of the conflict, which is probably closer to the truth. Seven years of to-ing and fro-ing is only resolved by the Romans bribing a neighbouring King enough to lure Jugurtha into a trap.

I hadn’t heard of this period of Roman history at all before picking up Sallust, but it does introduce important players Marius and Sulla early in their careers before they orchestrated massacres of Roman citizens in the First Civil War that so horrified Cicero 40 years later, and demonstrates that the North African province was still valuable to the Roman Republic even after the fall of Carthage.

Favourite lines/passages:

Jugurtha travels to Rome to petition (ie bribe) his way to the throne of the Kingdom of Africa, but is only partly successful. As he leaves, he reputedly turns back to look again at the city, and exclaims

“Yonder is a city put up for sale, and its days are numbered if it finds a buyer”   (page 73)

Marius, deputy to Metellus on the African campaign, grows increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in both the war and this political career, returns to Rome and is elected Consul by the support of the common people. Included in one of his speeches are the lines

“I cannot, to justify your confidence in me, point to the portraits, triumphs, or consulships of my ancestors. But if need be I can show spears, a banner, medals, and other military honours, to say nothing of the scars on my body – all of them in front. These are my family portraits, these my title of nobility, one not bequeathed to me, as theirs were to them, but won at the cost of countless toils and perils.”                        (pages 119-120)

Personal rating:  4

The reads in between: 

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb : yet another first in a fantasy trilogy by an author that I really should have read before now (I was reading the 20th anniversary edition!!) A young bastard responsible for the scandal leading to his father’s abdication is raised first as a stable boy and later an assassin in the royal court. Kept me interested throughout and keen enough to seek out more.

James Herriot’s Favourite Dog Stories. Heart warming short stories lifted from the All Creatures Great and Small books, capturing not only the spirit and loyalty of the working and family dogs Herriot encounters as a vet in 1930s Yorkshire, but also the beautiful land and earthy people, faithfully captured on the page.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie. An easy introduction to books set in Cornwall before my walk there in April. A young woman blithely ignores her multiple brushes with death until Poirot becomes involved.  Had the murderer pegged around the 2/3 mark. Ah Agatha, I have your measure now.

Next : The Conspiracy of Catiline.