Category Archives: Literature
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.
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’.
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.
- 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
“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.
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.
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?
So what of Hesiod’s epic piece, the Theogony? Is there any case to make for a polytheistic bible?
“[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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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).
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.
“For now I make the only true statement you are to expect- that I am a liar. This confession is, I consider, a full defence against all imputations. My subject is, then, what I have neither seen, experienced, nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so. I humbly solicit my readers’ incredulity.” -Lucian (True History)
The explorers met other incredible sights. They witnessed creatures with the torsos of women, but tree trunks where a woman’s legs would be. They sprouted vines from the tips of their fingers and embraced the travelers and kissed them upon the lips. While the men were amused with the creatures at first, they found that whoever embraced the tree-women for too long would suddenly be transformed into a tree himself. After two explorers were transformed to a pile of vines, the remaining men ran back to the ship in horror and set sail immediately.
“And if I am victorious, he added, ‘in the campaign which I am now commencing against the inhabitants of the Sun, I promise you an extremely pleasant life at my court.’ We asked about the enemy, and the quarrel. ‘Phaethon,’ he replied, ‘king of the Sun (which is inhabited, like the Moon), has long been at war with us.” – Lucian’s True Histories
There are spiders the size of an Aegean island that stretch their webs across the vastness of space. The warriors of the moon walk on these web bridges and prepare for battle against the forces of the sun.