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The Passion of Christ-ian Poetry

by July 26, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is difficult to know definitively when the ‘Ancient World’ came to an end. In all likelihood, the demise of Rome and the beginning of the Dark Ages was far more a transition than any single event. But even if we’re on flimsy ground regarding the moment of metamorphosis, we can certainly say that the soundtrack to the transition was provided by one of the most neglected groups of ancient artists; Latin, Christian poets.
They were revered in the middle-ages, but since then the Christian poets who wrote from 4th – 6th centuries have been maligned as shallow imitations of their pagan predecessors, concerned more with proselytism than prosody.
And perhaps there is an undeniable truth in this statement. Latin, Christian poetry is passionate, often bordering on the fanatical, but there are, as Carolinne White states in her wonderfully approachable work on the topic, Early Christian Latin Poets, “further delights and complexities of this unjustly neglected corpus”.
However, before we sup the flesh and blood of the works of the holy scribblers, one glaring and vital question must be asked: ‘What about the Latin, Christian poetry before the 4th century’?
Quite simply, there are no extant Latin, Christian poems from the first three centuries.
The knee-jerk reasoning is to cite the Roman persecutions of the Christians, but this doesn’t quite cut it. Severity of persecution oscillated enough to allow some work to blossom, and the holy texts themselves obviously pre-dated the poetry they inspired.
The persecution of Christians

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki. According to Tacitus, Nero used Christians as human torches

So has this work been lost? Well… possibly, but the crux of the issue lies in the fact that the early church was more influenced by Greek and Hebrew. Not surprisingly then, most early hymns were composed in either Greek or Syriac (a western dialect of Aramaic).
The early Christians considered Latin too pagan or, if you prefer, not Christian enough – a delicious irony as fanatics like Mel Gibson and his ilk consider the dropping of the Latin mass to be the zenith of impiety.
So the dearth of early, Christian, Latin poetry is no mystery.
The 4th-6th centuries, then, was a time of biblical re-education. Many religious texts were translated into Latin, and biblical and apostolic study became as much a part of the assumed curriculum for literate men as Virgil or Homer had been for their forefathers.
Sculpture of Homer

Bust of Homer

Paradoxically, detractors have accused the early Christian poets of being both too similar to, and not distinct enough from, their pagan forebears.
Here it appears we have some muddled thinking. Nobody could make a convincing argument that the style and meter of the Christians were not either heavily influenced by, or directly copied from the likes of Ovid, Horace, Virgil and Propertius. What makes them distinct, therefore, is the tone and content of their work:
“The abundance of sins tends to throw Christians into confusion. As a result of this our Lord wanted to give us a warning, comparing the kingdom of heaven to a net cast into the sea which catches up many fishes of every kind from different places. When they have been pulled to the shore, the fishermen separate them, placing the good ones in barrels, the bad they put back in the sea”. – Augustine
Painting of Augustine

Gerard Seghers (attr) – The Four Doctors of the Western Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

This is even more true for non-Latinists as poetical rhythm is often, inevitably, lost in translation. So we are left with content – and in this respect there was a tectonic, or perhaps divine, shift from the time of the pagan writers.
Overnight poetry became more serious, cerebral and spiritual. What was once a distracting folly for the educated elite became an exercise of the utmost reverence and piety.
Though despite these lofty intentions, the actual language used is often derived from Vulgar Latin – the language of the gutter, the downtrodden and the oppressed.
St. Paulinus of Nola

Linz Cathedral ( Upper Austria ). Gothic revival stained glass window showing Saint Paulinus of Nola.

A possible explanation for this is the vulgarity of the original scriptures themselves which, if Paulinus of Nola is to be believed, could not be further from the rarefied eloquence of the King James’ Bible:
“Let not the simplicity of scripture nor the poverty of its vocabulary offend you, for these are due either to the faults of translators or else to a deliberate purpose, for in its way it is better fitted for the instruction of the unlettered congregation as the educated person can take one meaning and the uneducated another from one and the same sentence.”
Though whatever the lexical shortcomings, this was made up for in spades by the fervent belief that these were not pagan word-games, but Christian truths. The problem with writing about the truth, however, was that there was often some meddlesome schismatic throwing spanners into the works.
Thus, a good deal of the time and energy spent by the early Christian poets went not into proselytizing, exalting, or composing perfect verse, but into denouncing other heretical sects. This seemed especially true of Augustine, who was determined to ensure a singularity of exegesis in a time when there were many dogmatic pretenders, all jostling for supremacy.
Several poets made pains to condemn the apostate tendencies of the Pelagians, Arians, Donatists, Priscillians and Manichees. Between them, they believed wild and dangerous things such as: We don’t inherit sin from Adam and Eve, God is superior to Jesus, Jesus is not eternal (though was created before time began) and other such insidious heresy.
St. Augustine

The Saint Augustine Taken to School by Saint Monica. by Niccolò di Pietro 1413–15

This gives us another clear and unambiguous way in which the Christian and pagan poets differed; the polytheists were far more laissez-faire and ad hoc when it came to the malleable details of their gods’ lives, attributes and even morality.
So it is not just because the subject matter is more familiar to us that the words of the Christian poets resonate with such vigor. It seems the pride and passion they put into their work was done so without affect:
“From the wound of Christ flowed the sacraments of the Church” – Augustine
The fire and brimstone were as burning and acrid on the page as off it. And so, even if one can make a solid case to state that the likes of Ovid and Horace were finer practitioners of their art, whatever Christian poetry lacked in style or objective beauty, it more than made up for in pride, passion, piety and, of course being Christian, a heavy dose of pathos:
“The holy one went out after being handed over for punishment…his magnificent head was encircled with a crown woven of thorns, because in his mercy he took upon himself all the thorns of our misfortunes…he was hung high on the spreading cross, transforming the anger of the crisis by means of loving devotion…suddenly a horrendous darkness fell, taking possession of the whole sky, covering the shadowy daylight with gloomy mourning; the sun buried…just as for three hours the darkened stars hid…so for three days the Lord endured imprisonment in the cave that was his tomb” – Sedulius

Troy: Fall of a City or Fall of Accuracy?

by October 31, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Once upon a time there was an epic 10-year war between austere and grandiose powers of the Mediterranean. There’s the wrath and favor of gods and goddesses, love and heartbreak, hope and despair, victors and losers, and, of course, the horse.
Trojan Horse Painting

Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773), inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid

We can only be talking about one story – The Trojan War. Traversing languages and lands, the author (or more likely, authors and groups of creators over generations) that created the Iliad and the Odyssey wove a tale that spoke so loudly to the psyche that it is still pervasive in many aspects of today’s popular culture.
Once an epic spoken to the tune of music and recited from memory by bards, the Iliad and the Odyssey were committed to writing sometime between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. In the ancient Greek world, scenes of the Trojan War were already a popular subject among artists. Vase paintings, wall decorations, and other works of literature that stemmed from the premise of Homer abounded. Scenes of the war appeared on clay kraters, a type of vase that was intended for use at a symposium. Here, the men in attendance would lounge around, look at the scenes on the krater, and it would spark discussions on topics such as bravery, war, religion, and whatever else is alluded to on the vase.
Krater with Troy scene

Mixing bowl with scenes from the fall of Troy. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But let’s fast-forward a few millennia. We know that the Iliad and the Odyssey have been incredibly popular topics throughout time, or else our fascination with them today might not be as deep. Permeating the crust of our own day and age, we have the Trojan War represented very clearly in films titled (unambiguously) Troy (2004), Helen of Troy (1956), and The Trojan Women (1971), to name a few. We see representations of the epic in video games and comics, the most recent sweeping the United States being the Assasin’s Creed: Odyssey.
And, of course, in our era of television studios churning out material like the medium will die tomorrow, we have many adaptations visible on TV, from the Disney Channel cartoon, Phineas and Ferb to dramatic retellings like Netflix and BBC’s Troy: Fall of a City.
Promo image of the show

Troy: Fall of a city

So, we know that the Homeric epics are popular springboards for creative fodder, but how have the representations outside the texts transformed and altered our common understanding of the Trojan War itself?
I am by no means a “classical purist,” and my bias may show in that I enjoy a good adaptation and creative twist to a classic – something also seen in antiquity several times over. While some in our field may look at representations like Troy: Fall of a City as preposterous misconstructions of the beloved Homer, I choose to appreciate them for the medium they are created in, knowing full well that a direct adaption is a ridiculous notion and that the epics themselves faced “personal spins” in antiquity, depending on the audience.
Sculpture of Homer

Bust of Homer

For those that are well acquainted with Homer, they may be quick to jump on the inaccuracies of pop culture adaptations. In Troy: Fall of a City, for example, there are many.
For starters, the level of interference played by the gods illustrates a strong difference between the film and the text. From central and imperative to all but dismissed, Troy: Fall of a City begins well enough with the divine characters, but soon loses track of them amongst the hubbub of other plots.
This is, of course, in stark contrast to the involvement we read in the texts themselves, where the gods are central and meddle, even when instructed not to be involved. While we certainly might have wished to see more of the gods throughout the series, they did seem to fade away naturally in favor of mortal plot lines. It was a decision that seems to align with viewers’ desires, to identify and see the people of the story, to make the heroic epic seem more like a historical event rather than, well, an epic.
Painting of the Gods in the Iliad

Athena counseling Achilles in “Achilles’ Wrath” by Michel Martin Drolling

Another common discrepancy we see, and as many reviewers have pointed out, is the scene where Achilles stands outside the Trojan walls and screams for Hector, who is inside. Very much a focal point in Troy: Fall of a City (and a bit of a tearjerker, if I do say so myself), this soul filled wail is not what was written in our source material.
Instead, Homer writes that Hector was the only soldier of Troy to remain outside, with old King Priam begging him to come inside the safety of the walls. Hector, however, remained and met Achilles face-to-face. So, while the screaming for Hector is an aspect of our adaptations we see repeatedly, and for good cinematic reason and reception, it is not one based in Homeric truth, whatever that may be in the first place.
Vase painting of the war

Achilles and Hector

This brings us to the classic icon of the Trojan War, one you probably learned about in the 4th grade with quaint cartoons mapping it out: the infamous Trojan Horse.
We have come to know the Trojan Horse as a symbol of trickery, deceit, war, and both victory and crushing defeat. Pop culture representations of the horse’s entry may vary from work to work, but, at least here, the pretense remains the same; the Trojans are taken off guard by the Greeks hiding inside the horse, who are able to deliver a deafening end to the war once they are secretly brought inside the gates. This symbol of the war stands out far above the rest, with the term “Trojan horse” coming to mean things in our modern world of technology, coding, war, and general social commentary. The attack represented a myriad of things then, as it does now.
Replica of the Trojan Horse

Replica of Trojan Horse – Canakkale Waterfront – Dardanelles – Turkey

It is easy to look at a piece of pop culture and be overtly critical of its blind eye to what we may consider glaring inaccuracies. The Trojan War is ubiquitous with antiquity, war, and the Greek world. The literature, archaeology, and history have been mused over since before it was even committed to writing. Because of this prolonged obsession, modern culture is filled with examples of the Trojan War, including the glowing successes and of course, inevitable missteps. Nonetheless, the Trojan War and its accompanying themes of bravery, struggle, love, and fate all persist today, in just about any adaptation you pick up. I think Homer (whoever he or they were) would tilt a symposium glass to that indeed.

The Holy Ass

by July 3, 2014

By Ben Potter
Regular readers might recall that from time to time we investigate the origins of the novel. So far we’ve looked at the bucolic innocence of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe as well as Petronius’ quasi-pornographic romp The Satyricon.

Hot on such esteemed heels we now come to the only Latin novel that is extant in its entirety.

Not only that, but it is probably the only substantial piece of prose from the ancient world that can hold its own in the modern sense. It does not largely (or solely) rely on being ‘of interest’ or ‘historical importance’, but is instead that most elusive and wonderful of things: a elegant piece of literature and entertainment in its own right.

Golden Ass
The recipient of this rather obsequious eulogizing is Lucius Apuleius and the text in question is the exemplary Metamorphoses, commonly referred to as The Golden Ass.
A quick internet search of the book will often regurgitate adjectives such as ‘bawdy’ or ‘picaresque’ and, whilst both are certainly justifiable, they do not quite do this peculiar (perhaps unique) work due service.
We could also call it a semi-autobiography, a cautionary guide for a young nobleman, or a set of Milesian Tales (so influential to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).
Far ore than anything else, The Golden Ass is a work of religious devotion – and a proselytizing one at that.
To fully appreciate this, we need to understand a little about Apuleius himself.

At this point regular readers will be expecting the almost stock-phrase: ‘Unfortunately we have almost no biographical information about [inset name] and what we do have is highly dubious’.

Well surprisingly, and unlike many other noteworthy characters from antiquity, not only do we have a decent amount of information to go on, but it also paints a picture of an extremely colorful life.
Born in the North African town of Madaurus, Apuleius was a true man of the world. Studying first at Carthage, then Athens, he eventually made his way to Rome where he studied Latin oratory and took a place at the bar.
However, this was not before he managed to flit away the small fortune bequeathed to him by his father through drinking and whoring his way around Greece, during a trip to the Olympic Games.
His later taste for the law may well have germinated from the necessity to defend himself against accusations of black magic when, shortly after marrying his friend’s mother, said friend promptly died.

The fact that the bride was enormously wealthy, as well as significantly advanced in years, convinced the family he had bewitched her and poisoned him.

Apuleius’ tongue-in-cheek (and victorious) legal defense, A Discourse on Magic, is his other, significant, surviving work.

In fact, all this sin and scandal does not diminish, but accentuates, the most important feature of Apuleius’ life; his devotion to the gods.
Goddess Isis
Not to the whole ancient pantheon mind you, but primarily to Isis, Osiris and then later, Asclepius.
But it is to Isis that The Golden Ass is foremost devoted.
The vehicle Apuleius uses to exalt his goddess is a broad plot almost completely lifted from either Lician of Samosata or Lucius of Patras, whose efforts, Ass and The Ass respectively, follow the same basic thread:
  • A nobleman engages in activities not worthy of his station
  • He dabbles in the dark arts
  • He is accidentally transformed into a donkey
  • This incarnation allows him to spy on private conversations and see all sorts of ribald behavior
  • He suffers greatly before regaining human form
The first two steps set up the precautionary tale, not exactly against impiety, but ‘mis-piety’. Classics legend Robert Graves explains:

“A nobleman should not play with black magic: he should satisfy his spiritual needs by being initiated into a respectable mystery cult along with men of his own station”.

However, it is the last step to which Apuleius gives his most serious attention.

Golden Ass
His transformation comes about through the kindness of the goddess Isis and he, in turn, devotes his life to her.
The religious allegory is not a subtle one; when a man behaves badly, when he dishonors or disregards the gods, he must go through the trials and tribulations of bestial servitude and suffering. Only upon accepting Isis into his heart will he be truly humanized and given the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the hereafter.
One suspects that Apuleius would have been rather pleased at learning some considered his work to be no more than a series of foolhardy and lubricious frolics. This seems exactly the point of the work – to not be considered overtly religious, but to charm, compel and covertly convert.
Though that’s not to say that he was entirely dismissed as an indecorous interloper into the world of tasteful literature.

It seems the black magic accusations against him caused some to see The Golden Ass as a literal memoir rather than an amusing recruitment tool… or indeed a work solely of wit and whimsy.

The Christian community, or at least its intelligentsia, were apparently genuinely troubled that Apuleius’ miraculous exploits were perceived as even more wonderful than those of Christ. Indeed, several centuries later, the Inquisition did their utmost to transform The Golden Ass once and for all into ashes.

St Augustine
Apuleius’ countryman, St Augustine, stated that his pagan predecessor “either reported or invented his transformation into asinal shape”.
In fact, the lives of these two devout Africans run along parallel lines, i.e. Carthage university, debauchery, residence at Rome, salvation. The key difference being that Apuleius chronicles his transformation with a sense of humor, a little less vitriol, and far less pomposity.
Unlike Augustine who wallowed in the blissful guilt of his youthful transgressions until he was old and grey, Apuleius saw his debaucheries as pleasurable pit stops on the road to enlightenment.
He appreciated what many of us know, though don’t always like to admit: that the follies of youth are what maketh the man.
He doesn’t quite go as far as to say that fornication and degradation are necessary rites of passage… but if he does speak of regretting them, then he does so with a suppressed smirk and a twinkle in his eye.
After all, a young man cannot remain a crude beast forever, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t enjoy his asinine desires while they last.

The Bible of Ancient Greece

by May 28, 2014

By Ben Potter
Much time and care is taken to bring the ancients to life; to imbue modern society with the idea that they were just like us in all their goodness and evil, their intoxication and sobriety, their love and lust, as well as their hate and chastity.
To downplay this would be both false and feckless, as well as an insult to a common humanity, evidenced by timeless art, extraordinary literature and the evocative tales found therein.
Nevertheless, there appears to be a sizeable exception, one in which the madness may be the same, but the method is barely recognisable… and that is religion.
Greek Pantheon
The polytheistic panoply atop Mount Olympus and in the heaving halls of Hades have great range and romance, but, almost inevitably, very little for citizens of secular or traditionally monotheistic societies to empathize with.
True, there are familiar elements: virgin births, resurrections, fratricide, patricide and capricious cruelty. However, such moments merely serve to punctuate, and therefore reinforce, the strangeness.

One explanation for the disconnect lies not in innate practical differences, but in the lack of a codified text. In other words, there’s no Ancient Greek bible.

Or is there?

Well… No, there isn’t.
But at any rate, if one wished to make a case for such a thing then there is really only one contender; Hesiod’s Theogony.
Hesiod, from Boeotia on the Greek mainland, was a contemporary of the Near Eastern Homer – dating him to the 8th century BC.
Homer’s epic and upper-class material far outstretched the pious, practical and homespun efforts of Hesiod, but despite their stylistic differences, their fame grew in parallel.
Gustave's Painting of Hesiod
(That’s not to say Hesiod was a down to earth poet of the people, the language he used was still elevated and rarefied.)
A near-contemporary myth, discredited even in antiquity, stated that Hesiod beat Homer in a singing contest. Although palpably untrue, the fact that the two men were mentioned in the same breath says something about Hesiod’s stature.
Additional ‘biographical’ information reports that he adulterously impregnated his host’s sister and fathered with her the Locrian poet Stesichorus. In revenge, he was thrown from a boat into the sea, only to be rescued and brought back to shore by a pod of philanthropic dolphins.
Such pleasant nonsense is first seen in the writings of Thucydides, three centuries after the fact. And, whilst telling us nothing of his life, such resonance does confirm that his legacy was almost as important as Homer’s.

So what of Hesiod’s epic piece, the Theogony? Is there any case to make for a polytheistic bible?

Triumph of the Bacchus

Well, not quite. It does not lay down doctrinal law, give advice on genital grooming, recommend who and how to love, or tut-tut at your choice of pizza topping. It does, however, give a pretty comprehensive list of gods, how they came to be, some of their key attributes, with whom they fought and with whom they… ahem… loved.
So if your definition of a holy book is one that outlines the origin and nature of gods, then the Theogony certainly qualifies.
However, we aren’t exactly dealing with a text of unalloyed veneration. Theogony is a warts-and-all account. There is no sugar-coating of the incest, murder, back-stabbing, cannibalism and madness that the Gods indulged in. Homer, to a far, far greater extent either humanizes, condones or simply ignores Divine guilt.
Something else which lends weight to the holy text debate is the fact that the various wars, affairs, births and castrations of the Theogony are almost certainly not a product of Hesiod’s fertile imagination. He, like Homer, was either chronicling or playing with established stories and themes.
Pandora's Box
It’s been suggested that Hesiod’s material can be traced back to the mythology and pantheon of the Babylonians, however, any similarities here could be purely coincidental. After all, the Incas had a story unerringly similar to that of Pandora’s box!
But what does Hesiod teach us?
For starters, we are supplied with the origins of the ancient sacraments, which were an offshoot of Prometheus deceitfully serving some rather bony beef to Zeus:
“[Zeus] took the fatted portion in his hands and raged within, and anger seized his heart to see the trick, the white bones of the ox. And from this time the tribes of men on earth burn, on the smoking altars, white ox-bones”.

Moreover, we are precisely told our distance away from our Divine keepers, provided we know how big an anvil is and have a working knowledge of physics (which, alas, I don’t – write in if you do!):

“An anvil made of bronze, falling from heaven, would fall nine nights and days, and on the tenth would reach the earth; and if the anvil fell from earth, would fall again nine nights and days and come to Tartarus upon the tenth”.

In addition to the origins of creation, sacrifice, the wars that shaped the universe and a travel guide to heaven, Hesiod’s work supplies us with some charming etymological snippets – some thought to have been coined by the poet himself.

For instance, Cyclops is round-eyed, not one-eyed, as it comes from the Greek, kuklos (circle). Aphros (foam) refers to the birth of Aphrodite, who was issued from the foam congealing around the discarded testicles of the castrated Uranus. Most pleasantly of all, Hesiod tell us the Titans are called so because of the teino (strain) of their insolence. This makes phrases like ‘a titanic struggle’ or ‘a clash of the titans’ near-tautologies.
Indeed, there is much to be learnt about Greek, polytheistic culture from the pages of Hesiod. However, anybody who seriously makes the ‘bible’ argument is most probably guilty of retrospectively interpolating our current societal fundamentals into Ancient Greece…

Hesiod (and even more so Homer) is far more akin to Dante or Milton i.e. (presumably) pious, with a god-given talent and a god-thirsty audience.

However you wish to view Hesiod, as prophet, poet, public servant, or even some combination of the three, his work has stood the test of so much time that it almost boggles belief.

And why is this? Well.. I’ll leave it to the man himself to explain:
“When a man has sorrow newly on his mind and grieves until his heart is parched within, if a bard, the servant of the Muses, sings the glorious deeds the men of old performed, and hymns the blessed ones, Olympian gods, at once that man forgets his heavy heart, and has no memory of any grief, so quick the Muses’ gift diverts his mind.”

In Nero’s Image

by April 29, 2014

By Ben Potter
There is (at least) one important step between the birth of western literature and the age of modern prose… and that is the genesis of the novel.
Here we are hot on the heels of our recent look at the ancient novel in the guise of Daphnis and Chloe, a bucolic idyll of star-crossed love. The twisted account under scrutiny today, however, could not be further from the beauty, purity and innocence ubiquitous within the previous work’s pages.
The founding text in question is the Satyricon, written by Gaius Petronius Arbiter in the 1st century AD during the reign of the emperor Nero.
If the finicky or pedantic wanted to poke holes in the above summary, they might point out that the Satyricon may not have been, in fact, the very first novel. Neither perhaps was it written by Petronius… nor in the reign of Nero.
Oh, and possibly, it wasn’t even called the Satyricon, as it is sometimes labelled as the Satyrica.

Though, of course, the attribution and date go hand in hand.

To give us some firmer ground on which to stand, we can state that Petronius was unquestionably a member of the Neronian court (famously represented by Leo Genn in the motion picture Quo Vadis). Moreover, chronicles of his lavish, lazy, witty, hedonistic and amoral character make him a good match as a potential author of the risqué Satyricon.

Because the style of the novel strongly suggests it is Neronian and there is no other viable candidate to whom we can attribute the work, Petronius almost ascends to the title of authorship simply by a process of elimination.

Decadence in Ancient Rome
Though despite evidence of undoubted, and occasionally high-brow, literary skill, Petronius (well.. his mother anyway) may have welcomed the fact that his name is on the cover in pencil rather than ink.

The Satyricon is lubricious, grotesque, subversive, picturesque, imaginative, and perverted in almost equal measure.
One can imagine it being something Roman Senators hid under their mattresses, passed around at the bathhouses and only read in public when concealed in a dust-jacket of Aristotle’s Ethics.
Therefore, as if you hadn’t twigged already, this might be a good point at which the prudish should stop reading.
The fragmented remains of the story (there are guesses that the c.200 pages could have run to as many as 1000) concern the trials, trysts and tribulations of the narrator, Encolpius and his lover, an astoundingly beautiful 16-year-old servant-boy, Giton.
As much of the work is missing, it is unclear as to the origins of the men, but it has been conjectured that Encolpius and his fair-weather friend (and constant rival for Giton’s affections), Ascyltus, could be runaway gladiators.

The extant work begins with the three men lying, stealing and… well… shagging their way across the south of Italy.

However, the bawdy and carefree tone is often punctuated by moments of acute and alarming earnestness.

Soldier Attacks
The culmination of an orgy scene instigated by Quartilla, an acolyte of the fertility god Priapus, sees a soldier bursting in whilst Giton is (consensually) deflowering a remarkably young virgin. The solider is on the brink of assaulting both juveniles before being called away to deal with unrest in the street.

These sobering moments punctuate what is an otherwise amusing and light-hearted work as Encolpius and Giton take the guise of a homosexual, hedonistic and hubristic Laurel and Hardy; forever falling out of the frying pan and into the flaming fire.
Then there is perhaps the most famous passage in the entire work, indeed one of the most famous passages in all of ancient literature; the Cena Trimalchionis, the dinner of Trimalchio.
The resonance of this vignette is probably felt more tenderly than we realize.
F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby went with working title’s of Trimalchio and Trimalchio in West Egg, before a less esoteric choice was made. Likewise, T.S. Eliot quotes directly from the passage in The Waste Land, while a reference is made in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. And, more recently, it is called upon in Robert Harris’ superbly written Pompeii.

So who exactly is Trimalchio? And why the enduring fascination with the 50 one-page-long chapters in which he features?

Trimalchio is an extraordinarily vain, fatuous, fat, not to mention flatulent (yes, really), arrogant, ignorant, and, above all, rich freedman who flaunts his wealth and the knowledge he doesn’t have… at every opportunity.

The classic images we have of Roman excess, vulgarity and gluttony are all personified in this gouty and incontinent buffoon whose excessive hospitality proves too much even for the greedy and opportunistic Encolpius, Ascyltus and Giton.
Course after course of increasingly sickening delicacies are wheeled out, often disguised as other things (e.g. pork cut into the shape of a bird), whilst the host conducts endless melodramatic cabaret acts involving staged errors committed by slaves who are then magnanimously absolved or freed.
Throughout the pretentious ostentation, Encolpius, as well as other guests, show their own snobbery and avarice by constantly criticizing and insulting Trimalchio sotto voce and then pealing into laughter or thundering into applause at their host’s feeble puns, misquotations and garrulous stupidity.

These wonderful passages are also peppered with interesting, amusing or macabre stories told by the dinner guests – one of which is the earliest known account of the werewolf myth.

The protagonists are only allowed to resume their immoral wanderings when they slip away during Trimalchio’s mock funeral, which he instigates in order to hear some flattering eulogizing.

Petronius’ brilliance here is seconded only to his bravery.

Emperor Nero
The character of Trimalchio was not merely a reflection of the nouveau riche former slaves with much, much more money than taste or education, but he is widely thought to have been a parody of no less a man than the Emperor Nero himself.

Indeed, the entire book can be read as an attack on the rapid moral and intellectual decline Rome suffered during the age of the said Emperor. After all, Nero’s reign was only 50 years after the Golden Age of Latin Literature, an age the author wistfully alludes to throughout the Satyricon.

It is perhaps because of this courageously damning and hilarious lampoon of the great dictator that the passages involving Trimalchio have endured so completely.

Unfortunately for lovers of art and freedom, Petronius’ bravery, belligerence and belittling finally caught up with him. He was arrested at Cumae in 66 AD, though in the end he opted for a noble suicide rather than succumbing to the whims of the authorities.

This too he did with the panache one would expect from such a flamboyant and sybaritic creature. Petronius’ job at court had been elegantine arbiter, the Emperor’s fashion adviser… so who can deny that he knew a thing or two about going out in style!
The words of Tacitus chronicle his last moments beautifully:
“Having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humour, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends… he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verse… he gave liberal presents… indulged himself in sleep… even in his will he did not… flatter Nero… on the contrary, he described fully the prince’s shameful excesses… and sent the account under seal to Nero.”

Practical panegyric poetry: an Augustan love-in

by April 25, 2014

By Ben Potter
It’s a story with which we are all well-familiar… that of the first emperor of the civilization that shaped the western world, Rome.
Octavian statue
Octavian Augustus rose to power following the assassination of Caesar, though only by overcoming the traitor-in-chief Brutus, and his ally Cassius, at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC.
His power was then consolidated following the battle of Actium in 31 BC, at which he defeated “Antony… with him also, a shameful thing, his Egyptian wife” (Cleopatra).
These words of the poet Virgil ring in harmony with so many from the time. This is because it was an era with so many highly gifted poets, ones who were universally full of praise for the leader of the state.
While we refer to the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Webster as ‘Elizabethan’ or ‘Jacobean’, those adjectives merely denote the time periods during which these men of letters were active. The likes of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius and Tibullus were ‘Augustan’ in mind, body and soul, rather than solely in chronology.
But in a world where the leader is suddenly, brutally and absolutely in command, the question almost inevitably rises: to what extent can we rely on contemporary poets to express their true feelings about Augustus?
Well… the Augustan poets were certainly not backward in coming forward when it came to praising the Emperor.
Reams of paper (well… papyrus) were spent glorifying the new boss. Though ‘glorifying’ is perhaps not a strong enough word; much of the language used by the poets actually attempts to compare the object of their panegyrics to a god:

“Some council of the gods will soon receive you” – Virgil, Georgics.

“Jupiter rules the citadels of heaven and the realms of all the immense three-natured universe ; the earth Augustus governs, each of them Father and Leader” – Ovid, Metamorphoses.

Likewise Horace’s Odes are littered with such allusions and Virgil’s Aeneid is a piece of epic propaganda which attempts to legitimize Augustus’ reign and prove his divinity.

The idea of equating a man to a god is (ironically) a trifle hard to swallow in this day and age. However, this would not have been so at the time under discussion. Leaving aside the fact that Roman society was polytheistic and so the quota of gods could never be fully reached, Augustus was literally a god.
Upon conquering Egypt he became the Pharaoh, no mere leader, intermediary, or ruler by Divine Right, but an actual god.
In addition, Julius Caesar was posthumously deified – Haley’s Comet passing during his funeral games helped grease the wheels of this idea – and so in Rome too, Augustus was, at the very least, the son of a deity.
Divinity was not the only way in which the poets exalted the Emperor; his building works were also praised.

Suetonius famously reports that Augustus boasted he “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble”.

In Propertius 2.31, the poet makes a reference to one such example, the mighty Temple of Apollo on the Palatine. However, this could also be interpreted as a reference to divinity, as Augustus’ residence adjoined the fantastic structure. What is more, the mention of the temple’s ‘Punic columns’ forces us to think of Augustus’ victory over Cleopatra (and thus Antony).

Battle of Actium
Indeed, the battle of Actium was another favoured topic the scribblers dwelt on. Epode 9 of Horace deals with the subject at length and states of the leader that “not even Africanus equalled him”. To be considered greater than the scourge of Hannibal was just about the highest praise one Roman could bestow on another.
So Augustus brought peace and prosperity to the Empire, he was literally a god on earth, and he rebuilt a decrepit and decaying Rome. Why then is there any doubt that the poets winged worship was anything other than genuine?
Well, one reason would be the client-patron relationship. The patron in question was, crucially, a close friend of Augustus. He was a man named Maecenas.
He had Virgil, Propertius and Horace all firmly under his patronage and pay. The true parameters of the (traditional and formal) relationship are not known, but it is likely Maecenas would have been able to dictate the topic and tone of much poetical output, if not the actual content.
However, there were a few notes of dissent and, being poets, these came in response to Augustus’ Leges Iulia, his laws championing a lifestyle of monogamy, sobriety and fecundity.
For example, in Propertius 2.7, the poet unequivocally repudiates the Augustan ideal by claiming that he is not going to marry and breed simply to swell the ranks of the dilapidated army: “there will be no soldier from my blood”.
A step further is Ovid’s Art of Love which is basically a handbook on how to seduce women!

How could Ovid get away with something like that in an absolutist regime? Well… he couldn’t. He was exiled from Rome in 8 AD.

Ovid himself described the causes of his exile as “carmen et error” – a poem and a mistake. The poem in question is obviously the Art of Love, but the mistake, intriguingly, remains unknown.

Scholars have enjoyed guessing what it may have been, but most conclude that he witnessed or participated in a sex scandal involving a member of the imperial family. There is, however, no evidence whatsoever to corroborate this.
Even after his exile, Ovid continued to write praiseworthy prosody from his Romanian sanctuary, meaning that, up until the end, Augustus still had every major poet in the empire singing and scribbling his praises.
The simple, but slightly unsatisfactory, reason for this is that the poets wanted to praise the emperor.
The lavish praise they heaped onto Augustus’ shoulders merely reflected his popularity with both the plebeians and aristocracy alike. As a matter of fact, the plaudits from Horace and Virgil began in the 30’s BC, before it was clear Augustus would be the undisputed future of Rome and long before he had absolute power.
This is hardly surprising… Augustus took Rome from being divided, demoralised, socially and religiously depraved, and on the brink of bankruptcy and famine. He transformed it into the commanding power of the ancient world, doubling its territory and winning massive favour with all classes.
True, as absolute ruler he was powerful, untouchable and often ruthless. Thus, the Augustan poets knew on which side their bread was buttered – but fortunately for all concerned, it was the side, given the choice, they probably would have spread it on anyway.