Category: Latin literature

175.  Ab Urbe Condita (A History of Rome). Books XXXI to XLV (Rome and the Mediterranean) by Livy (c.14 BC)

175. Ab Urbe Condita (A History of Rome). Books XXXI to XLV (Rome and the Mediterranean) by Livy (c.14 BC)

Plot:   Battles with Philip of Macedonia, Antiochus of Syria, Nabis of Sparta, and finally Philip’s son Perseus between 200 and 167 BC, which lead initially to what may have been thought of as the emancipation of Greek states from Macedonia, and eventually the widespread influence of Rome over the entire Eastern Mediterranean, laying the foundation for what would become an Empire.

My copy was the Penguin Black Classic Rome and the Mediterranean, translated by Henry Bettenson (ISBN 0140443185)

My thoughts:  Unlike the Second Punic War against Hannibal which still captures the imagination, this stretch of thirty years seem like mere skirmishes in comparison. Yet this series of battles and confrontations (later known as the Second and Third Macedonian Wars, and the Seleucid war against Antiochus of Syria) eventually led to Roman domination of Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, and the diminution of Macedonian power.

Halfway through I bailed on these books, largely for the reason above. There was just nothing memorable or inspiring about this period to keep my attention. Livy is certainly a thorough recorder of history, but I think I had wearied of the year by year reports without the personalities of Hannibal or Scipio to keep me intrigued.

One interesting point. As reported in previous books, Roman commanders would sometimes hurl legion standards into the ranks of the enemy to urge their troops to attack and recover them and hence maintain their honour; or deliberately place their armies between the enemy and a geographic barrier, giving the men no choice but to fight on in hopes of victory, knowing that they could not panic and retreat. You would have to be confident that these tactics would work and your men were strong enough to win, or disaster would follow.

I couldn’t help comparing the role of Rome in these conflicts with modern day expectations of the United States as a political mediator and/or military power.

And what happened to Horace’s Epistles as promised? I did read most of them, honest; but just before my brain shut down, I was overwhelmed with the realisation that life is too short to reread them looking for something worthwhile to say about them to you. The longer ones just seemed to ramble, producing no joy in me. While no doubt it is me at fault, I feel no guilt in moving on. Dymo me heathen. That’s two retreats in a row – the Romans have defeated me too.

Personal rating:   Not a reflection on the quality of writing but the events they depict and my own exhaustion with reading about more years of warfare. 3/10

Other reading:

rp1Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Teen sci-fi novel recently made into a very entertaining film by Spielberg. Dystopian near future has everyone escaping reality into wholly immersive online computer worlds, with the multibillion dollar ownership of the system up for grabs to whoever can solve the riddles and beat the games. A love song to 80s videogames, movies and pop culture which people seem to either love or hate, but also a sweet coming of age story, a romance and an adventure story. I fell for all of it. 5/5

Prairie Fires  by Caroline Fraser. Detailed biography of the life and times of Laura Iprairie firesngalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie stories which have been a guilty pleasure of mine for many years, not least for editions with the sweet line drawings by Garth Williams. Sets the trials of the Ingalls against a wider context, and much about the relationship between Laura and her own daughter Rose as they collaborate on writing the Little House books. Interesting especially for Wilder fans. 4/5

Next :  Amores (Erotic poems) by Ovid. Woo hoo!

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174. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books XXI-XXX (The War with Hannibal), by Livy (c.19 BC)

174. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books XXI-XXX (The War with Hannibal), by Livy (c.19 BC)

Ten of the surviving books from Livy’s multivolume history of Rome, these deal with the Second Punic War, pitting Carthage against Rome and initiated by Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps into Italy.

“War was coming, and it would have to be fought in Italy, in defence of the walls of Rome, and against the world in arms.”   (page 39)

My copy was again the Penguin Black classic translated by Aubrey De Selincourt and edited by Betty Radice (ISBN 014044145X)

My thoughts: I had already read about the First and Second Punic wars in Polybius’ history, but Livy goes into much more detail, and is less flattering to Hannibal, describing him as not only “reckless in courting danger … superb tactical ability … unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, the last to leave the field” but also displaying “inhuman cruelty, a more than Punic [Carthaginian] perfidy, a total disregard for truth, honour and religion, of the sanctity of an oath and of all that other men hold sacred” (page 26)

Livy as rendered here by De Selincourt and Radice is very readable and also dramatic, and while I did not retain all the detail, it was exciting to read and not as diary-like as the previous Livy books – perhaps because there are more events to describe in a shorter space of time (17 years in 676 pages) and they are by their nature more dramatic.

The greatest mystery is why Hannibal and his men, having survived the Alpine crossing, harsh winters, disease and famine, and causing the almost complete destruction of three separate Roman armies, did not immediately march on Rome but spent years in minor battles around Italy.

“Assuredly, no one man has been blessed with all God’s gifts. You know, Hannibal, how to win a fight; you do not know how to use your victory”     (Maharbal, Carthaginian commander of cavalry, to Hannibal, page 151)

Indeed towards the end Hannibal is quoted as berating himself over this very same failure to press his advantage home upon the very target he set out to capture. Certainly in the early years of his campaign he seems to lose more men to weather and terrain than in battles.

“It was the horses, more than anything else, which created havoc … they were soon out of control … In the confusion many non-combatants, and not a few soldiers were flung over the sheer cliffs which bounded each side of the pass, and fell to their deaths thousands of feet below”   (page 58, Crossing the Alps attacked by mountain tribes)

“Heavy rain and a violent wind right in their faces made progress impossible; they could not hold their weapons, and if they tried to struggle on, the wind spun them around and flung them off their feet … all they could do was turn their backs to it, crouching on the ground … blinded and deafened and benumbed with terror … So intense was the cold that followed that of all that miserable heap of prostrate men and beasts not one … was able for a long time to raise himself from where he lay.”   (page 85)

The Romans were very superstitious, and Livy reports on evil portents each year – raining stones and milk, children born with animal faces, animals born with extra limbs or talking, rivers and lakes filling with blood, etc.) and the need to make appropriate sacrifices to appease the gods, including ‘the strewing of the couches’ (a banquet laid out for images of the gods reclining on couches).

After the Carthaginians led by Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal defeat two more Roman armies in Spain (led by brothers Publius Scipio and Gnaeus Scipio); Publius’ son Publius Cornelius Scipio (later nicknamed Scipio Africanus) convinces the Romans to allow him to command the new army to be sent to Spain. After capturing New Carthage where the Carthaginians were holding all their Spanish hostages, equipment, supplies, weapons and money, Scipio goes on to defeat the three Carthaginian armies, then pushes on to land on the African coast and eventually force Hannibal to retreat from Italy in order to protect Carthage. The last chance of a peace is shattered and Scipio defeats Hannibal’s forces at the battle of Zama.

There is so much more detail – I haven’t mentioned the Numidian kings Masinissa and Syphax, and their competition for both the throne and the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba;  or the vicious and brutal treatment of the citizens of Locri by the Roman garrison and their commander Pleminius.

Favourite lines/passages:

Has to be the Campanian civilian’s reckless taunt of the Roman commander who has captured his city :

“Order my execution too, so that you may boast of killing a much braver man than yourself”  (page 375)

Personal rating:   Very readable. 7/10

Kimmy’s rating: Still not keen on those elephants.

Other reading: Two books coincidentally having the same title initials

The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse. Several short stories linked together. Jeeves’ stories all sound similar but are still excellent entertainment.  4/5

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. Two dogs and a cat travel hundreds of miles to be reunited with their owners. A great job of telling an animal story without OTT anthropomorphism, and providing beautiful descriptions of the Canadian wilderness.  5/5

Next :  The Epistles of Horace, including the Ars Poetica

 

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

 

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