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By Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Ancient Greeks are famed for their poetry.
Even today Ancient Greek poets such as Homer are widely read and remain influential. The Greeks especially revered lyric poetry, which was often performed accompanied by music or sung by choruses. Nine lyric poets became seen as canonical in Hellenistic Greece and these are known as the Nine Lyric Poets of Greece (or the Melian poets).
These poets lived in different areas of Ancient Greece, at different times; Hellenistic scholars grouped them together based on their brilliance, innovations, and influence. The choice of there being specifically nine canonical poets was to reflect the Nine Muses.
Alcman of Sparta (7th century BC)
Alcman may have originally been a slave and was possibly of non-Greek origin. He became famous for his choral songs. Six books of his songs survived to Classical times but today we only have fragments of his many works. His style was lighthearted and he wrote many poems on nature, were widely imitated by later writers such as Vergil. Alcman was so esteemed in Sparta that he was reputedly buried next to Helen of Troy.
Alcaeus of Mytilene (620-580 BC?)
Alcaeus was born in an aristocratic family, and he became involved in many of the civil conflicts of Mytilene (Lesbos). He was later exiled and became a mercenary. Warfare was a common theme for Alcaeus. In one poem he relates how he threw away his shield to save his life. He developed the Alcaic stanza which was very popular. The poet was allegedly a lover of Sappho’s, but this may only be a latter invention. His works have been lost to us, but his verse influenced Horace among others.
Anacreon (582-485 BC?)
Anacreon was probably born in Teos in Asia Minor. He fought against the Persians during their conquest of the Ionian cities. He fled and found shelter with the tyrant of Samos. Later he moved to Athens where he was received with great honors by Hipparchus. In Athens he became friendly with many of the leading cultural figures of the day. When Hipparchus was assassinated, he appears to have moved to either Teos or Thessaly. His verse celebrated love, wine and pleasure, but most of his work has been lost to posterity.
Bacchylides (518-451 BC?)
Bacchlyides was born on the island of Keos and was reputedly the nephew of Siminodes, one of the greatest Greek poets. His career was often overshadowed by his uncle. Bacchylides composed choral odes and dithyrambs for the Dionysian festival celebrated in Athens, and he also wrote love poetry, as well as odes celebrating military victories and Olympic champions. His work was not popular when he was alive but grew in popularity after his death.
Pindar (518-443 BC?)
Pindar is regarded as one of the greatest of all Greek literary figures. He was born not far from Thebes and claimed aristocratic birth. According to one story he was stung by a bee on his lips while young, and this allowed him to sing honey-like songs. He studied poetry in Athens, and later fled the Persians when they occupied Thebes and Boeotia. Pindar was famous in his day for his choral odes. Many of his surviving poems are celebrations of Olympic victors. He was perhaps the first poet to reflect on the nature of poetry and the role of the poet in society. Only a fraction of his work has survived, but his Victory Odes have influenced figures such as Goethe and Nietzsche.
Ibycus (550-500 BC)
Ibycus was born in Rhegium. We know little else about his early life. It appears that he travelled widely and spent some time at the court of the tyrant of Samos, Polycrates. After the death of the tyrant he returned to his wanderings. Ibycus was famous for his love poems to his younger male lovers. One report of Ibycus’ death says that he was captured by bandits, and as they were about to kill him, he pointed to cranes that were flying overhead, and told the robbers that they would avenge him. After the bandits killed Ibycus, the cranes were seen overhead again, and the bandits laughed when they recalled that Ibycus believed that they would avenge him. Passers-by heard the bandits boasting and informed the local rulers, who them apprehended and executed the murderers of the old poet, as he had foretold.
Sappho (620-550 BC?)
Sappho is often seen as one of the greatest female poets who has ever lived. In fact, Plato called her the ‘10th Muse’. She was born on the island of Lesbos and was famous for her love poetry. The poetess is celebrated for her verses on her love for other women, because of their language and eroticism. Sappho later married and had a daughter. Like her reputed lover Alcaeus, she was exiled from Lesbos because of political in-fighting. One legend has her committing suicide for love of the handsome Phaon. Much of what we know about Sappho comes from unreliable sources and we only have a small number of poems and fragments, of her work. The word lesbian is a reference to Sappho, as she was a native of Lesbos, but in the Ancient World she was often portrayed as a promiscuous heterosexual. Much of what we know about Sappho comes from unreliable sources and we only have a small number of poems and fragments of her work.
Simonides (556-448 BC)
Simonides was born on the island of Ceos. He lived in Athens at the court of Hipparchus and became acquainted with many leading poets. After the assassination of the tyrant, he went to live in Thessaly. During the 2nd Persian invasion of Greece, he became well known for his commemorative verse such as his lines on the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae. Later Simonides lived in Sicily and helped to negotiate a peace treaty between two local tyrants. The poet was often depicted as a miser and was also credited with inventing new letters of the alphabet and a system of mnemonics. Simonides defined a poem as a ‘speaking painting and painting as silent poetry’.
Stesichorus (630-555 BC)
Stesichorus was born in Metauros, Magna Graecia (Southern Italy). He was famous for his choral and narrative poems. Stesichorus was a member of the aristocracy, and later in life he was forced into exile and lived in Himera, in Sicily. Many of his works were based on myth and they were performed by choruses and were very popular with the great Greek dramatists. In total, he wrote 26 books of poetry, most of which are now lost.
Easterling, P.E. and Bernard M.W. Knox (Eds) (1985) Cambridge History of Classical Literature, v.I, Greek Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
By Justin D. Lyons, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Today we think of Thucydides as one of the first historians. Yet perhaps that word is a bit misleading, or at least doesn’t paint the full picture.
In his Poetics, Aristotle distinguishes the historian from the philosopher and the poet. History is not philosophic because it deals with particulars, whereas philosophy deals with the universal. Poetry lies between philosophy and history, dealing with the universal in the particular.
At first glance, Thucydides seems to fall decidedly into the category of historian. The beginning of The Peloponnesian War undermines the exaggerated grandeur attributed to early Greece, built mainly on the authority of Homer. The glory of poetic vision is scrapped for a realistic assessment of early ages. In addition, Thucydides himself remarks that he does not write as the poets do.
Thucydides narrates the history of a particular war, the Peloponnesian War, which occurred between Sparta, Athens, and their allies in the 5th century B.C. Yet he claims that he has written his work “as a possession for all time” and that it will be an aid to understanding the future. But one must ask how a history of a particular war bound in time and place could so illumine future action.
Just as with the poet, the particular and the universal are interwoven in Thucydides’ work. He describes this war between these two cities at a certain time but reveals the story of mankind.
Thucydides looks to motion and war as most revealing of human nature. This is the difference between Thucydides and the philosophers. Thucydides does not seek the nature of man in the contemplation of a static realm of truth and light; rather, he seeks it in movement and uncertainty. But man in motion is also the favorite theme of the poets. Poetry flourishes in conditions of stable peace, but it portrays man in crisis, man in flux–the bloody field of Ilium, the trials of the homeward journey, the city infected with plague.
The historian is not free, like the poet, to invent, shape, or alter events for dramatic purposes. But Thucydides does. Events must be selected, arranged, and narrated even by the historian. The deeds of the war are edited by Thucydides. Only if they are selected and arranged properly will we get a true picture. No mere chronicler, Thucydides weaves a narrative balance between word and deed.
There are two great wings to the Peloponnesian War, marked by Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the plague on the one hand, and the Melian Dialogue and the Sicilian expedition on the other. The word is immediately followed by the deed. In each case, the hubris given in word is then terribly punished by what happens. Like a poet, Thucydides creates a narrative balance – an act of hubris and its consequences. Also like a poet, he does not give explicit interpretation of the events, but lets the events themselves present a terrible drama.
In terms of invention, Thucydides admits he does not present the speeches in his history exactly as they were given; they are, in his opinion, what the speakers should have said. In truth, Thucydides composes the speeches himself.
Thucydides does not make explicit judgements on the understandings expressed by the speakers, but rather presents them in all their partiality and partisanship. In doing so he creates, or rather imitates, political drama. Political speeches are necessarily partial because they present a particular policy of a particular city to a particular audience; they are bound by the limited horizon of the political actor. The reader is drawn into the drama through the clash of conflicting views. By allowing the struggle to work itself out before the reader, he presents a poetic imitation of political life.
The most well-known of the speeches, the Periclean Funeral Oration, puts forward a vision of immortal glory. Pericles asserts that the glory of Athens will survive even if Athens is ruined.; it will survive forever. “The admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours,” he says, “because the power of Athens has been shown by mighty proofs…We have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us” (PW 2.42).
Thus Athens does not need Homer for a eulogist. Pericles claims the deeds of the city are self-sufficient, they stand by themselves, they do not need the poet’s craft. But it is the craft of Thucydides that continues to breathe life into Periclean Athens.
Thucydides’ presentation of Pericles must bring forward for the reader what is a fundamental underlying question for the entire work: Can the fortune be mastered by human planning?
Pericles counseled the Athenians to shut themselves up within their walls rather than to chance battle in the field, to hold to the impregnable position afforded them by the city and the sea. His plan worked against the Peloponnesians, but it could not defend against the natural force of the plague, which ravaged the city. The terrible suffering of that pestilence emphasized the fragility of life and gave vent to the worst of the passions. “Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.” (PW 2.53)
This episode demonstrates the two kinds of motion in Thucydides: 1) the motion of natural forces and 2) the motion caused by human passions, both of which are matters of necessity or fortune rather than human planning.
Pericles’ vision of immortal glory is the greatest claim for the durability of human endeavor. But Thucydides contradicts this claim, implicitly, through the work as a whole. The story of human action is presented against a background of earthquakes, tidal waves, solar and lunar eclipses, droughts, floods, famines, and a volcanic eruption. Thucydides emphasizes the forces of nature to point out that not everything can be controlled. Nor are natural forces always spectacular: the silent workings of water and earth can undermine anything wrought by the hands of man.
The force of human passion is also prevalent in Thucydides. He describes the Corcyraean revolution as a great motion which spread until “the whole Hellenic world was convulsed” (PW 3.82). The sufferings were many and terrible: death raged in every shape and there was no limit to the violence. These possibilities are always present in human nature. Passions are kept quiet in peace because men are not confronted with imperious necessities. War lowers character to a level with circumstances, and often lends victory to simple brutality.
Thucydides suggests that every city will finally succumb to necessity, either from natural forces or from a failure to control and moderate the human passions. This is the tragic understanding in Thucydides: Man seeks rest from motion and change through his intelligence, but all of his constructions are subject to chance, necessity will overwhelm his islands of rest— one cannot promise immortal glory. Thucydides views the existence of man through a veil of sadness. His readers feel that universal melancholy because he has drawn it forth from the particulars of history.
By Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield
I grew up reading Ladybird books in the 1960s and 1970s, and feel a deep affection for them (and indeed still possess – and use – quite a few on British flora and fauna). So when I was asked if I wanted to write one for the new Ladybird Expert series, I leaped at the chance.
Choosing a topic was easy: in my role promoting the public (and my own!) understanding of philosophy, I have in recent years found myself turning more and more to Plato’s Republic to elucidate topics of urgent current concern. There is so much to learn from, for example, Plato’s brilliant and incisive analysis of how a democracy can be subverted to tyranny by a cynical and opportunistic demagogue, or his scathing exposé of sophists and their peddling of ‘alternative facts’. Deciding on the structure was also easy. The Ladybird Expert format is strict: precisely 24 pages of text (in a font which allows for ca. 270–290 words per page) and accompanying illustrations.
Plato is a superb teacher. Starting with the fundamental questions, ‘Why should I be just? What’s in it for me?’, he guides us seamlessly through the ethical and political ramifications and shows how they can be answered only by exploring their roots in psychology, epistemology, metaphysics and aesthetics. All I had to do was trust the basic structure of The Republic itself, add a couple of introductory pages on Plato’s life, times and work, plus a conclusion on the abiding influence of The Republic in a wide variety of fields and its acute relevance for us today.
That was where the easy part ended. The Republic is an immensely rich, densely argued and in places very difficult dialogue, and I had to tick many boxes. My introduction needed to be clear, concise and engaging; I also wanted not just to summarize but also to raise questions for the reader to ponder – after all, Plato never writes in his own voice, but employs the dialogue form because he wants his readers to think for themselves. The summarizing was perhaps the hardest aspect of all. I once wrote a 90,000- word book on Plato called Plato and the Hero, and much of it was on The Republic. Condensing what I wanted to say to around 5,500 words was often painful: not just slicing away excess flesh but cutting into bone. I was counting not only words but characters and spaces, and was able to exceed the suggested word length simply by dint of using shorter words.
The 24 illustrations were also a challenge, although I loved collaborating with the immensely gifted and imaginative Angelo Rinaldi. I had to come up with the idea for each one, and I then worked closely with Angelo on details of design and colour. In fact, when being forced to cut out yet another metaphysical argument became too painful, I found solace in researching hairstyles or Pamphylian armour (for the Myth of Er) or what exact dyes were available in fifth-century Athens (when the dialogue is set, although Plato wrote it in the fourth century).
I have always been interested in art, but coming up with ways to depict or suggest some of the philosophical subjects was not easy, particularly the perfect and eternal Forms (such as the Form of the Good), which cannot be apprehended by the senses. But I found that if I was cunning I could use the images not simply to convey atmosphere but to smuggle in additional information that there had not been room to include in the text.
I learned a lot. Although I have studied and written about The Republic for many years, I had not known much about how it was physically composed, copied and distributed around the Greek world (in the following century it appears in the great library in Alexandria); nor had I been fully aware of just how many individuals, disciplines and art forms it has influenced. The film The Matrix, for example, adapts the Simile of the Cave in its disturbing portrayal of humans unknowingly trapped in a fake reality.
All the evidence pointed to what I had long felt myself. Despite the fact that most of us find some of the proposals put forward by the character of Socrates too extreme – such as the abolition of the nuclear family amongst the Guardian class and, indeed, the totalitarian nature of the ideally just state in general – Plato nevertheless asks absolutely the right questions, and his devastating analysis of the moral and political ills of his day is still only too pertinent.
Furthermore, in moving away from a theory of justice conceived in terms of external actions towards a notion of justice as internal psychic harmony, he gives us one of the truly seminal turning-points in Western thought, and one which Freud acknowledges as fundamental to his own work. We may well profoundly disagree with some features of the ideal state that Socrates outlines, but The Republic remains a treasure trove and each new generation will be able to find much in it to illuminate the challenges it faces.
Originally published in ARGO: A Hellenic Review, Issue 10, 2019, Edited by Dr Daisy Dunn for the Hellenic Society https://www.hellenicsociety.org.uk/publications/argo/
By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Before apocryphally rolling out of the carpet and into legend, Cleopatra (69 BCE-30 BCE) already had a storied past. The twenty-one-year old and her thirteen-year old brother-husband Ptolemy XIII (62 BCE-47 BCE) ruled together for close to two years before said brother—under the influence of his overly ambitious advisors—successfully banished Cleopatra from Alexandria. Prudently using her mastery of the Egyptian language—the first Ptolemy to do so in the nearly three-hundred-year-old dynasty—Cleopatra mounted an army to defeat Ptolemy. It was only shortly thereafter that she had the legendary encounter with Caesar. Yet most of what has been penned about Cleopatra was drawn after her stars became aligned with those of ancient Rome; written from the decidedly biased perspective of the Romans. Time and again we know Cleopatra as the subversive siren from the corrupted East who seduced two of ancient Rome’s greatest generals.
What could account for so much ire against the Egyptian queen? The truth is that in order to justify an unpopular civil war against his rival Mark Antony (83 BCE-30 BCE), Gaius Octavius “Octavian” (later Augustus—63 BCE-14 CE) launched first a propaganda campaign then a full-scale war against Egypt by painting Cleopatra as an Eastern harlot who seduced Antony with her blend of depraved sorcery. Octavian’s crusade against her soon took hold in the rank imaginations of the xenophobic and misogynist Romans. In his Odes, Horace calls her a “fatal monster,” Sextus Propertius refers to her as the “whore queen” in Elegies and in Lucan’s Poems she is termed “Egypt’s shame.” Yet what is never mentioned about the Egyptian queen is that she didn’t have a drop of Egyptian blood. In fact, her lineage derived from a Macedonian Greek, celebrated as a hero in ancient Rome, whose military accomplishments were the ambition of every Roman leader.
It is an irony that forasmuch as the Romans glorified Alexander the Great (356 BCE-323 BCE), they heaped an equivalent amount of scorn and disdain on Cleopatra who was not only Alexander’s political heir but may very well have been his biological heir as well. Founding member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy I Soter (367 BCE-83 CE) was one of Alexander’s three most trusted Macedonian generals and by some accounts, his half-brother as well. Although vilified within Greek city states, polygamy was practiced in the Greek kingdom of Macedonia, especially amongst the ruling class. Phillip II (386-336 BCE), Alexander’s father, had several wives and many children; Ptolemy was the son of one of his multiple wives. Alexander even had a sister named Kleopatra, which in Greek means “glory of the father.” Truth told, Cleopatra was a common name amongst queens in Ptolemaic Egypt; Cleopatra, its final queen, was number seven. Alas, Cleopatra’s link to Alexander continued after her demise; the Hellenistic period begins and ends with the deaths of Alexander and Cleopatra.
After Alexander’s death, his empire was divided between his three generals with Ptolemy winning the grand prize of Egypt. Alexandria, founded by Alexander in 331 BCE, had become Egypt’s new Hellenistic capital. Because of the optimal location of Alexandria’s port—midway between the burgeoning metropolis of Rome and the orient—it was transformed into an international market and intellectual mecca almost overnight. During its peak Alexandria was the largest and most affluent city in the world; the upstart, backwater Rome paled in comparison to the glittering marble and jewel-encrusted splendor of Alexandria. Sparing no expense for their shining city by the bay, the early Ptolemies were responsible for commissioning some of the most notable architecture of the ancient world. The Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was built on the island of Pharos adjacent to Alexandria, it stood at an indomitable height of more than three hundred and fifty feet—only the pyramids at Giza were higher. Another draw for both Greeks and Romans alike was the sumptuous and much coveted glass enclosed Tomb of Alexander, first on display in the former capital of Memphis then permanently housed in Alexandria. Further, under Ptolemy I the Great Library of Alexandria and its accompanying museum (mouseion-home of the muses) was built. Second to none in the Hellenized world, the transcendent Great Library and Mouseion attracted the best minds of the day with it becoming a mark of distinction to be educated by an Alexandrian scholar. No other library in the world could boast the number of scrolls with estimates ranging from 40,000-400,000. Intellectually gifted with a talent for language—she was fluent in nine of them—it was in this rarified space that Cleopatra flourished.
Even her most ardent detractors begrudgingly praise Cleopatra on her considerable conversational and rhetoric skills. In his Lives of Marcus Antonius Plutarch quips: “Plato speaks of four kinds of flattery, but Cleopatra knew a thousand.” While her sweeping intellect and aptitude for languages was innate, her erudition and rhetoric skills could only have been learned. Though the Greeks kept their daughters in a state of near ignorance, the Ptolemaic females were educated alongside their male counterparts. After all, on account of sibling marriage, Ptolemaic girls stood just as good a chance at governing as their boys. Sibling marriage was a tradition that the Ptolemies continued from their Pharoahic forebears and was used as a means of keeping power amongst the clan by not weakening the Macedonian bloodline; it also helped prevent foreign powers from infiltrating Egypt.
While growing up, Cleopatra didn’t have to look far to find authoritative female role models. Sibling marriage gave Ptolemaic women power they would never have otherwise had; the sister/wives ruled right alongside their brother/husbands in governance. In an era when women were better seen (though rarely in public) than heard, Ptolemaic female rulers were responsible for overseeing public works, building temples, mounting defense and waging war. Moreover, Egypt was a country which was progressive for its time in gender relations. Unlike in Greece, Egyptian women could make their own marriages and once married did not have to defer to their husband’s will. They could divorce, hold property and were able to inherit. All things of which Greek women could only dream.
Though Egyptian women may have been liberated, in Ptolemaic Egypt, queens still needed a male co-regent. Cleopatra’s options were limited. Her choices were her ten-year-old brother, or her even younger brother. Married in name only, Cleopatra ruled as the sole monarch with Ptolemy XIII, as consort for the close to two years after which time he and his counsels had her ousted. Just as she was amassing an army in Syria to take back the throne, a Civil War ensued between Julius Caesar (100 BCE-44 BCE) and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus or Pompey (106 BCE-48 BCE). After Caesar’s victory at Pharsalus, in order to remain in good graces with the victor, Ptolemy XIII, with the help of his notorious advisors drew up a plan to dispatch their old friend and benefactor Pompey by repeatedly stabbing him as he stepped ashore in Egypt. For this heinous act, Ptolemy XIII landed in the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno, alongside Judas. Shortly thereafter, upon visiting Egypt, Caesar was presented with Pompey’s decapitated head as a gift which the boy-king thought the Roman dictator would appreciate. Caesar was repulsed and reportedly wept upon seeing the head of his adversary who had once been a close friend and his former son-in-law.
The history of Cleopatra’s activities during this time is murky. Indeed, her story isn’t fully recorded until it aligns with that of the Rome’s. What we do know is that shortly after Caesar lands in Egypt, Cleopatra exhibits all the ingenuity for which she would become famous. Did she first meet Caesar rolled up in a carpet as Plutarch reports? She would have had to do something outrageous as the cards were mightily stacked against her. According to legend, while in a ship she slipped by dark of night through Ptolemy’s impenetrable blockade then hid in the paltry boat of Apollodorus the Sicilian. We’ll never know how he did it, but somehow while Cleopatra was wrapped in a carpet, Apollodorus strode past the probing eyes of countless sentinels who were on the lookout for the diminutive queen, finally presenting his precious cargo into the private quarters of the Roman general himself. There is much speculation about their first encounter. Ever the ladies’ man, Caesar was likely soon smitten by the charismatic and erudite Cleopatra whom he promptly restored to the throne to rule alongside her impetuous and errant brother as their father’s will had dictated. When it was made known to Ptolemy XIII that he would once again be ruling alongside his sister, in a rage, he threw off his crown and ran out of the room in tears—displaying all of his thirteen years of age.
Alas, poor Ptolemy! After his tantrum, he was not much long for the world. He was believed drowned during the prolonged Battle of Alexandria which ensued shortly after Caesar reinstalled Cleopatra to the crown. Ptolemy XIV (61 BCE-44 BCE) soon followed XIII in co-regency, but once Cleopatra produced her (and Caesar’s) male heir and consort—Caesarion or Ptolemy XV (47 BCE-30 BCE), XIV’s time on the planet didn’t fare much longer than his unfortunate brother. It should be noted here that although the Ptolemies were known for many things throughout their nearly three-hundred-year dynasty, familial harmony was not one of them. A long history of bloodlust follows the clan. Even Cleopatra’s own father had her eldest sister, Berenice IV (77 BCE-55 BCE), executed for usurping the throne during his time away in Rome. Notorious for conspiring against her while they were alive, Cleopatra’s three remaining siblings were ultimately all put to rest during her reign.
Cast as a femme fatale by the victor’s propagandists, to this day Cleopatra’s astounding achievements have often been overlooked. When she inherited the throne from her father, she also inherited an Egypt that was a weak client of Rome’s and in substantial debt. Yet in the space of a few short years in a series of clever financial maneuvers she was able to transform Egypt’s debt into surplus and regain Egypt’s status as a power player. Under her aegis, Egypt became a flourishing state once again; Alexandrians, long known for their revolts against her predecessors when times were lean (there were two such insurrections against her father) were sufficiently appeased never to stage a revolt during Cleopatra’s twenty-one-year reign.
Despite Rome being hot on her heels, Cleopatra not only expanded Egypt’s empire to its size at the time of Alexander the Great, she went beyond those borders to Egypt’s size at its pinnacle one thousand years earlier. She transformed Egypt into a world superpower, the entirety of the known world within her grasp. After hers and Antony’s crushing defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, bountiful Egypt became the Roman province for which Octavian yearned. Yet for all the Roman ire against Cleopatra, Egypt didn’t soon forget their regal queen whom in life they revered as a deity. For hundreds of years after her death she was still worshipped and even today is celebrated throughout the world as an icon, oftentimes compared to her predecessor and exemplar, Alexander the Great.
With an emphasis in Women’s Studies, Mary Naples earned a Master of Arts in Humanities from Dominican University of California in 2013. Her deep love of antiquity is reflected in her writing which, amongst other things, explores women’s narratives in the Greek and Roman worlds. Presently, she is working on an eBook about feminine consciousness in ancient Greece. More of her articles can be found on her website: www.femminaclassica.com. Since 2013, Mary has been a contributing writer for Classical Wisdom.
Mary will be speaking on the topic of ‘Cleopatra – Twilight of an Empire’ as part of our online 2021 Symposium. Reserve your tickets today here at a price of your choice.
Written by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Petronius was one of the world’s first novelists and an important cultural figure in his day. He was influential in the Rome of Nero, but this would ultimately lead to his death.
Biography of Petronius
The chief source for the life of this fascinating character is the Roman historian Tacitus. It is most likely that his full name was Titus Petronius Niger. Based on the surviving sources it appears that he was a wealthy member of the Roman elite. Members of his class would have been expected to occupy important military and political posts. Petronius, however, was a notorious idler and lived a life dedicated to pleasure and the arts. Despite this, it appears that he served as the provincial governor of Bithynia and was even consul in 63 AD. He demonstrated a great deal of capabilities, but he soon returned to his disreputable ways.
Relationship with Nero
Yet, Petronius’ term as consul brought him to the attention of Nero. The Emperor and the Consul found that they both shared a love of the finer things, especially the arts. Nero soon admitted the ex-consul into his inner circle at Court. Petronius, a cultivated man, began to have influence on the Emperor. Nero appointed him to the unofficial position of ‘arbiter of elegance’, making his word final on all matters relating to taste and art at Court. As Petronius was becoming closer to Nero, the Emperor was living a debauched life, and becoming increasingly erratic and cruel. Many became jealous of Petronius’ close relationship with the Emperor, and it was feared that he could become too powerful at Court.
This jealousy and suspicion likely led to an event related by Tacitus. The chief of the Praetorian Guard falsely claimed that Petronius was plotting to assassinate him in 66 AD. In reality, Petronius was innocent and there was no plot. Despite their former closeness, Nero immediately had him detained at Cumae, near modern Naples. Petronius decided to kill himself to avoid torture and execution. It is reported by Tacitus that he slit his veins, and then had his slaves bind them up. This was to prolong his life and allow him time to say goodbye to friends and family. He spent the last few hours of his life gossiping with friends, listening to music, and reading his favourite poems. He had his favourite slaves and servants rewarded, while those who had not pleased him, he had punished.
According to Tacitus, Petronius then fell asleep and never awoke. Before his death, he is said to have ordered for a beautiful vase of his to be destroyed, as he knew that Nero has admired it as well. He did not want the Emperor to seize it after his death, and in this small way, he frustrated the man who had forced him to take his own life.
Despite the high drama and intrigue of his life, Petronius is best known today for his masterpiece, the Satyricon, one of the earliest examples of what could be described as a ‘novel’. Although the Satyricon is attributed to Petronius, there does exists some ambiguity over whether he really wrote it. As is common with ancient literature, much of it has been lost. We only have approximately 10% of this work, but what remains is remarkable and deeply influential.
The Satyricon narrates the adventures of three adventurers, Encolpius, his boyfriend, and his slave as they make their way through the underbelly of Roman society. It is an episodic picaresque novel, and it is believed that the intended audience was Nero and his courtiers, as the sources tell us that Nero and his intimates were fascinated by the low life of Rome. Petronius’ work is comic, satiric, and features the three anti-heroes in a series of disreputable encounters. Much of the Satyricon contains independent stories that are only loosely related to the adventures of the central characters.
The best-known section of the work that survives is the Banquet of Trimalchio (or Cena Trimalchionis in Latin). It gives a wonderful description of a party given by an ex-slave Trimalchio, who is now fabulously rich. The dinner is in Campania and is attended also by other rich former slaves. Many believe that Petronius was mocking what he perceived as the pretensions of the freedman class in Roman society. He portrays the ex-slaves as vulgar, tasteless, and hypocritical. Many commentators also believe that Petronius is satirising Nero and his vulgarity and tastelessness.
The language used in the novel is remarkably clear and beautiful, and the Latin is still admired to this day. Lovers of literature still read this episodic novel, especially the famed Banquet of Trimalchio. The work is also a priceless source of information about the social life of Rome in the First Century A.D.
The influence of The Satyricon reaches far, directly into one of the most famous and acclaimed works of literature of the twentieth century. In the figure of Trimalchio – a freed slave, trying to gain the respect of the high society he has entered into – novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald saw a prototype for the mysterious ‘new money’ figure of Jay Gatsby, from his widely celebrated novel, The Great Gatsby. In fact, one of Fitzgerald’s original titles for the novel made the comparison explicit: Trimalchio in West Egg (and elsewhere, simply, Trimalchio). Ultimately, of course, Fitzgerald went with the snappier title of The Great Gatsby, but an early version of the novel bearing that title has been published since his death. A slightly more recent work, much more directly inspired by the Satyricon, is the film adaptation by revered filmmaker Federico Fellini, known as the Fellini Satyricon.
Petronius was an important figure in the reign of Nero. He was an important courtier and an aesthete who believed that taste and beauty were more important than duty. If, as is widely believed, he was the author of the Satyricon, Petronius was one of the world’s first novelists and his work influenced the development of the genre, and artists centuries after his death.
Morton Braund, Susanna (2002) Latin literature. New York: Routledge.
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ancient Rome was a brutal place where life was cheap. Romans accepted violence and oppression as part of everyday life, evidenced by their terrible treatment of slaves. However, in the first century AD, even they were appalled by the murders and practices of a woman known as Locusta the Poisoner. Involved in the deaths of countless people, Locusta—possibly the first documented female serial killer in history—played a crucial role in the history of the Imperial Family.
Poison and the Black Arts in Ancient Rome
In Graeco-Roman society, murder was much more common than today, even during the so-called Pax Romana. Poison was frequently used to dispose of one’s personal enemies and to settle feuds. It appears that there were many women in particular who had knowledge of natural poisons and could concoct lethal potions.
However, it is believed that many males were also adept at making poisons. Often the makers of these lethal concoctions were regarded as sorcerers or witches. It appears that Locusta may also have dabbled in the occult and many sources refer to her as a sorceress.
The Grisly Rise of Locusta
Several sources mention Locusta, including one of Rome’s greatest historians, Tacitus. It was widely held that she was from Gaul (modern-day France). It is not known if she immigrated to Rome or had been brought to the city as a slave. Tradition states that she came from a poor peasant family and she learned how to concoct the poisons from her Celtic ancestors. It appears that Locusta was dedicated to her art and studied many plants and herbs. This allowed her to invent new poisons.
In Rome, she appears to have teamed up Canidia and Martina, forming an infamous trio of female prisoners. The exact nature of the relationship between these women is not known, but Locusta was the most prominent. She was either the most accomplished of the trio or possibly their leader. It seems that their services were much in demand, especially from the rich. Their poisons were suspected in many murders. Indeed, they ended up in prison at least twice, but each time they were released after interventions from some of their aristocratic clients.
Locusta and the Imperial Family
In 54 AD, Locusta was contacted by Agrippina the Younger, the niece and wife of Emperor Claudius. Agrippina wanted to poison Claudius so that her son Nero could become Emperor. Agrippina had Locusta brew a poison made out of deadly nightshade that killed Claudius. This paved the way for the succession of Nero. Agrippina then had Locusta thrown in jail to deflect suspicion. Who was going to believe the word of Locusta against the Empress? She was later sentenced to death.
One source claims that Locusta was innocent and Claudius was actually killed by his doctor on Agrippina’s orders. Locusta was saved by none other than the new Emperor, Nero. He was clearly impressed by her abilities and knew that a poisoner was always needed in the vicious world of Roman politics. This may indicate that she was indeed the poisoner of Claudius.
In 55 AD, Locusta was released from prison and began to work for Nero as a state-poisoner. He had her brew a poison that killed his step-brother Britannicus, who had a stronger claim on the Imperial throne that he had. Locusta may have been an accomplice in the murder of Nero’s many real and imagined enemies. The Emperor was so impressed with her that he helped Locusta set up a school for poisoners where she trained many women in her black art.
The Fall of Nero and Locusta
Nero’s erratic and brutal behavior soon lost him the support of the Senatorial elite. In 68 AD, the Senate sentenced him to death after a series of revolts and mutinies. Nero later committed suicide in his palace. Emperor Galba replaced him and many of Nero’s supporters were executed. Locusta was arrested and sentenced to death. This time there was no one to help her to evade justice. It appears that she was dragged through the city in chains along with others who had been supporters of Nero.
According to one legend, she was tortured and humiliated in the arena and later torn apart by animals. We can be certain that she died a gruesome death. The story of Locusta entered Roman popular culture; her name became a by-word for evil and poisoning.
Locusta is arguably one of the most famous poisoners in history and probably the world’s first-known serial killer. Her career demonstrates the role that poison played in Roman society and also shows that the Roman world—despite its grandeur—was a brutal and vicious world. Locusta’s legacy was that she invented many more poisons who had many victims. Her school for poisoners may have trained many more in the creation of lethal potions and substances. Long after she was brought to justice, her poisons were probably still killing people.
Tacitus, Annals (London: Penguin) 12.66-67