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Wine and Roman Poets

by January 4, 2022

By Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
When we think of wine in the ancient world, the first thing that comes to mind is the Romans and their luxurious banquets. We know that wine was an important part of the Roman culture; there were even precise rules for the way and quantity in which it was to be consumed. However, while we do know that wine played an enormous part in the life of the ancient Romans, we have to bear in mind that most of the information we have about wine and drunkenness in Roman society come from literary sources. As such, the information we get from these sources is entirely susceptible to the requirements of the genre.
Horace
If you wanted to find the most ardent fan of wine, look no further – you have found a man who not only resorts to wine for pleasure, but claims that his work itself entirely depends on it:

No poetry could ever live long or delight us

That water-drinkers pen. Since Bacchus enlisted

Poets, the barely sane, among his Fauns and Satyrs,

The sweet Muses usually have a dawn scent of wine.

The most important role that Horace attributes to wine is that of a source of inspiration, and he claims that he cannot write until directed to by Bacchus, the god of wine. He does not know where Bacchus will take him, but this direction also depends on Horace’s mood, as well as the type of wine that he is drinking.
We all know the famous line “seize the day”. What some of us may not know, however, is that Horace uses wine more than anything else to demonstrate the importance of this attitude. He says that there is no way to know what gods have in store for us, so the solution is:Be wise, strain the wine, and trim your long hope into a brief space … seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next.” It is not useful to spend time thinking about bad things, and to get rid of these earthly cares, we should resort to wine.
Another important feature of wine, according to Horace, is its inability of being connected to the war in any way. He thinks that Bacchus brings only harmony, and that there is no place for war in the wine-drinking world. What is important to note, however, is the fact that Horace emphasizes the importance of moderation in drinking, and warns of the dangers if this moderation is not achieved.
Propertius
As mentioned above, the exaggerated appraisal of wine that can be found in the works of these poets should not be taken literally. That is to say that, most probably, they were not such passionate wine-drinkers in their private lives. This is especially true when it comes to Propertius. We know almost for sure that Propertius the man would not allow himself to fall under the temptations caused by excessive intake of wine. Propertius the poet, on the other hand, continues the elegiac tradition in the best way possible.
He uses wine to emphasize the passion in his poems, and it is an almost inevitable feature of the lovers’ encounters. Similar to Horace, for Propertius, wine is the source of inspiration, his muse. However, Propertius is a bit more realistic, taking into account that wine does not only solve lovers’ problems, but it also creates them. In his prayer to Bacchus, Propertius says: Through you lovers are joined, through you they are broken up.
Propertius with his lover Cynthia
The poet’s ambivalent approach to wine can also be seen in the following verses:

Perish the man who discovered undiluted grapes and

first corrupted good water with nectar! … Beauty dies by wine, youth is broken by wine,

often a mistress does not know her own man because of wine

Tibullus
The two greatest passions of Tibullus are his lover and the countryside. For him, wine is an instrument that he uses to emphasize the importance of both, as it is not only related to love affairs, but also to the celebration of nature. When it comes to love though, he is a bit more moderate than his two colleagues. He takes Horace’s stance that wine can dissolve earthly cares, but he also agrees with Propertius that it is not always the case.
Tibullus was in love with a married woman named Delia. You can imagine how much suffering this situation can cause, especially for an elegy poet. Therefore, only wine and sleep can provide him with a temporary relief:

Add merum, and restrain new grief with wine,

so that victorious sleep might occupy the eyes

of a tired man.

On the other hand, wine can also help him seduce Delia, or bring sleep to her husband, leaving some lovers’ time to them. This poet’s stance on wine was very ambivalent, which usually depended on the nature of the relationship in question. When he was suffering, not even the countryside could soothe his sadness. When things were going well, however, there was nothing better than enjoying wine outside:

Let the wines celebrate the day: There is no shame

in dripping with wine on a feast day, and clumsily moving

wobbly feet

Even though we know for sure that these poets were merely conforming to the requirements of the genre, we can still learn a lot of actual wine facts from them, and take great pleasure in reading about their struggles and passions.
After all, we have all been there, haven’t we?

Sappho: the Tenth Muse

by November 18, 2021

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Besides being born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BCE (and this date is often disputed), surprisingly little is known about the life of this beloved poet. The only reliable source of biographical information about Sappho comes from her own poetry. Additionally, much of her writing has been lost to the ages. We do know, however, that she was considered the equal of Homer and numbered among the Nine Lyric Poets of ancient Greece. She was prolific and wrote around 10,000 lines (about 2,000 less than the Odyssey), but today only about 650 lines survive.
Painting of Sappho in Pompeii
Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”)
Still, her name has survived, and her reputation as a gifted lyrical poet with it. She wrote extensively about love and passion for all peoples, and for both men and women.
These discoveries have lead to the assumption that Sappho was a lesbian. The term “lesbian” derives from the name of her homeland Lesbos, and the term “sapphic love” is derived from the poet’s own name. We may never know for sure if Sappho loved women; the love for women described in her poetry may have been entirely fictional. But given that she is believed to have written of her life in other fragments, this seems unlikely.
However, in her own time period, she was not considered gay. Quite the opposite: in classical Athenian comedy (from the Old Comedy of the fifth century, to Menander in the late fourth and early third centuries BC), Sappho was caricatured as a promiscuous heterosexual woman. It wasn’t until the Hellenistic period (about three centuries after her death), that she was described as a homosexual.
Some ancient writers assumed that there had to have been two Sapphos: one the great poet, the other a very promiscuous woman. There is an entry for each in the Suda, the large 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world.
The truth is, we can only draw conclusions from various scraps of poetry that have been attributed to Sappho. And they really are ‘scraps’. All of the surviving works by Sappho are partially destroyed, save for Hymn for Aphrodite. More than half of the original lines survive in around ten more fragments and the rest of the extant fragments of Sappho contain only a single word. Her poems are actually categorized as fragment 1- fragment 213. These fragments have been attributed to several books that the poet is believed to have authored during her literary career.
Vase of Sappho
Alcaeus and Sappho. Side A of an Attic red-figure kalathos, ca. 470 BC. From Akragas (Sicily).
Recently, there have been major discoveries of more of Sappho’s poetry. In 2004, the Tithonus Poem and a new, previously unknown fragment was discovered, and in 2014, fragments of nine poems: five already known but with new readings, including the Brothers Poem, were found in an ancient Egyptian vase.
Even though very little of her work has survived, from what remains we can determine that Sappho was extraordinarily talented. She possessed a clarity of language and simplicity of thought that creates images that are sharply defined and beautifully constructed.
She wrote and sung in an Aeolian dialect, a type of Ancient Greek that was a pitch-accented language, a bit like Chinese is today. She used a rhythmic scheme that Sappho is said to have invented called the “Sapphic Stanza”. Each four-line stanza consists of three metrically identical lines, eleven syllables in length, followed by a shorter fourth line of five syllables.
Bust of Sappho
Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription “Sappho Eresia” ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original.
She was admired by other poets of her time. One Greek author, writing three centuries after her death, confidently predicted that “the white columns of Sappho’s lovely song endure / and will endure, speaking out loud . . . as long as ships sail from the Nile.”
Solon, the poet, statesman and all-round wiseman, asked to be taught one of her songs “so that I may learn it and then die”
The philosopher Plato wrote of her in the Anthologia Graeca, a collection of ancient poems by esteemed writers, when he states:
“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless! Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”
While much of her work has been lost, we still maintain enough poetry from Sappho to appreciate her skill as a poet and her importance as an ancient writer.

Horace – Poet of the Golden Age

by October 15, 2021

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Mediocrity in poets has never been tolerated by either men, or gods, or booksellers.”
So wrote Horace, one of the most celebrated of all the Roman poets. He lived during the Golden Age of Latin literature which occurred in the last decades of the Roman Republic, and continued into the First Century A.D. Great writers such as Vergil, Tacitus, and others created masterpieces that have proven to be enormously influential. The work of Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BC), better known as Horace, offers a unique insight into Roman life and thought of the period. He also provided a vision of the world that continues to inspire readers to this day.
The life of Horace
The poet was born to a freed slave who was probably originally from the highlands of central Italy.  His father, whom Horace greatly respected, became a moderately successful businessman in Venusia. Horace’s family was affluent enough to send him to be educated in Rome. In about 46 BC the future poet travelled to Athens. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Greece was occupied by his assassins. Horace joined the Republican army of Brutus and Cassius. While serving in the army, he became an officer, fought at the Battle of Philippi (42 BC) and commanded a legion. After the total defeat of Brutus and Cassius, however, Horace fled back to Italy.
He returned to discover that his father’s property had been confiscated by Octavian (later, better known as the first Roman Empoeror, Augustus).  Horace was later pardoned for serving in the army of the assassins of Julius Caesar, and he became a clerk in the Roman treasury. During his time in Rome, he circulated some of his poems and they came to the attention of Gaius Maecenas, one of the most powerful men in Rome.  He became Horace’s patron, and the poet joined a circle of writers, which included Vergil. At some date Maecenas introduced him to Octavian. It appears that Horace supported the Principate, like so many other members of the elite, to prevent Rome descending into another Civil War.  Some have criticized Horace for becoming associated with a tyrant like Augustus.  It does seem that Horace did benefit from his relationship with the first Roman Emperor, but based on his verse he still retained some of his old Republican sympathies.
Horace
It appears from his poetry that he accompanied Maecenas on a journey to the south of Italy and may have even been present at the Battle of Actium. Horace became a good friend of Augustus who offered him a role in his government, but the poet refused and preferred the simple life. He was later made a Knight. He died not long after his patron Maecenas.
The work of Horace
His finest early poetry of Horace were the Epodes that were modelled on Hellenistic verse and were written after the Battle of Philippi. These poems are concerned with satire, love and occasionally politics. During his first years in Rome, Horace wrote the Satires. These are often humorous, but they were also profoundly philosophical. Horace was an Epicurean who wanted a life of peace (ataraxia) and he believed that the best way to achieve this was by self-sufficiency and to enjoy a simple life of pleasure. The Satires are an attempt to show how men could live in accordance with traditional values in the new age ushered in by Augustus.
After the Battle of Actium (31 BC), Horace wrote another book of satires. His most important works are considered to be his Odes. Some of these verse praise Augustus, but also denounce what the poet saw as the corruption in Roman life. These Odes, which were modelled on Classical Greek examples, also portray elite life in Rome and argue for a simple life dedicated to small pleasures.  These poems were not well received by his critics. Next Horace wrote his Epistles, letters in verse. His most important epistle was the Ars poetica (19 or 18 BC). This is often mistakenly regarded as a piece of literary criticism. In fact, it provides insights into the nature of poetry. In this work Horace argues that the poet, or indeed any artist, should hone his or her natural ability by long years of study. Horace’s health declined as he grew older and one of his last know works was a long poetic work Secular Hymn. He also completed some more odes despite their relative unpopularity before his death.
16th century copy of Horace’s work
16th century copy of Horace’s work
Influence of Horace
The poetry of Horace was enormously influential. The work of Ovid and the Roman elegist Propertius were deeply influenced by his Odes. Despite his Epicurean views, the poet was very popular in the Medieval era, and was possibly the most influential Latin writer for many centuries. Horace’s work was widely read in the Renaissance and deeply impressed Petrarch. Many prose writers frequently quoted Horace, and his Odes and Epistles were widely translated. Generations of schoolboys grew up with the works of Horace. Many scholars argue that Horace’s ideas on a refined, yet simple life played a key role in the development of the concept of a ‘gentleman’. This was an enormously important social concept until the 20th century in the western world.
Conclusion
Horace was a Republican who used his poetic gifts to flourish in the Principate. He was one of the greatest of all Latin poets. He promoted a view of the world that has proven to be enormously popular. Horace’s works decisively shaped western poetry for over a millennium, but in recent decades because of changing tastes his appeal has declined. Nevertheless, one phrase of his remains eternally popular: carpe diem – seize the day.
References
Hornblower, S., Spawforth, A. and Eidinow, E. eds., 2012. The Oxford classical dictionary. Oxford University Press.
Commager, S., 1995. The odes of Horace: A critical study. University of Oklahoma Press.

The Nine Lyric Poets of Ancient Greece

by September 24, 2021

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. 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.
A Roman Copy of a Bust of Pindar
A Roman copy of a bust of Pindar
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.
Kalpis painting of Sappho
Kalpis painting of Sappho
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.
References
Easterling, P.E.  and Bernard M.W. Knox (Eds) (1985) Cambridge History of Classical Literature, v.I, Greek Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Exile of Ovid: Tragedy of a Great Poet

by February 10, 2020

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Ovid (43 BC-17/18 AD) is one of the great poets of Rome and indeed of the classical world. He is still studied and read to this day and his works, especially the Metamorphoses has consistently maintained its popularity. While he is remembered as a poet of love and joy, Ovid was, in his real life, an exile who suffered greatly.

Statue of Ovid

Statue (1887) by Ettore Ferrari commemorating Ovid’s exile in Tomis (present-day Constanța, Romania)

The life and career of Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso was born in the provincial town of Sulmo, some 100 miles (140 km) from Rome, into an equestrian family. His father had the means to send Ovid and his brother to Rome to further their education. There, Ovid studied rhetoric but was more interested in verse. Based on his autobiographical poems, he travelled widely in Greece and Italy and later held a number of minor positions in the government. Soon though, he dedicated himself to poetry and rapidly became one of the leading lights of the Roman literary world.

At first, Ovid wrote love poetry but later went on to compose larger workers, such as the Metamorphoses and the Fasti. By 8 AD he was one of the best-known literary figures in Rome and friends of great poets such as Horace. Then, for reasons unknown, he fell out of favor with Augustus and his life became a nightmare.

Ovid Script


An illumination of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from a manuscript of William Caxton’s translation of the Metamorphoses (1480)—the first in the English language

Ovid’s crime

In AD 8, the poet was banished from Rome by the personal orders of Augustus without due process. Ovid was a friend of Augustus’ granddaughter, Julia the Younger, who, along with her husband, were implicated in a plot against the First Emperor. While the exact reasons for Ovid’s exile are not known, it has been speculated that Ovid knew of the conspiracy and did not disclose it. There are others who believe that he helped Julia in her many affairs, which scandalized Roman society and angered the severe Augustus. Some have suggested that the poet, who was something of a Casanova, may have had an affair with the granddaughter of the Emperor.

Julia the Younger

Julia the Younger was imagined in Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1774.

Yet another theory was that Ovid’s poetry, which celebrated love and extra-marital affairs, was contrary to the moral reforms of Augustus. All that Ovid states about his exile was that it was a result of “a verse and a mistake”. The banishment, however, meant that Ovid had to leave his beloved wife and his family.

Exile in Tomis, Black Sea

Ovid was sent to the outer reaches of the Roman Wold. He was ordered to stay in Tomis, which was on the coast of the Black Sea in what is now Romania. It was part of the Kingdom of Thrace, a client state of Rome.

Tomis was mainly inhabited by Thracians who were shepherds, constantly armed to defend themselves and their herds from raiders and wolves. The town was only superficially civilized, and no one spoke Latin. In his poems, he describes the hardships he experienced among the natives and the fears he had; Ovid was constantly at risk from the barbarian tribes who lived in the region.

Over time, however, the affable poet made friends with many of the local tribes’ people, especially the Gaetae, whom he refers to as Scythians. These were nomads and he writes’ about them in some of his most memorable poetry.

Painting of the Scythians

‘Ovid among the Scythians’ (1862) by Eugène Delacroix.

Ovid suffered greatly during his exile and he and his wife made many pleas to the Emperor to allow him back to Rome. However, Augustus never relented, and Ovid was never to see his beloved spouse and city again. When Augustus died, the poet and his family had real hopes that the order of banishment would be lifted. Unfortunately the successor of Augustus, Tiberius, was a cruel man; he continued to forbid the poet to return. Eventually, Ovid became somewhat reconciled to his fate, as can be seen in his later poems written at Tomis.

Works in Exile

During his sad and lonely years on the Black Sea Coast, the poet matured as an artist. There, he wrote two great works, the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. The themes of these works are his love for Rome and his exile. The Tristia, in particular, contains some of his most powerful poetry. Also during this time, he wrote the Fasti, a series of books on the history of Rome, which may have been written to win the favor of the Emperor. This was left unfinished at his death and was published posthumously. It is believed that several works written by the great poet were lost during his banishment.

Ovid's Tomb

Scythians at the Tomb of Ovid, by Johann Heinrich Schönfeld

Ovid’s Death

Ovid died of unknown reasons in Tomis in 17 or 18 AD, far from his family and friends, and was buried in Tomis. His poetry became more popular than ever and was to prove very influential. Interestingly, the order of banishment was only revoked in 2017, by the Roman city council.

Reference

Fairweather, Janet. “Ovid’s autobiographical poem, Tristia 4.10.” The Classical Quarterly 37, no. 1 (1987): 181-196.

The Mysterious Mr. Homer

by July 29, 2019

No one knows exactly when the Greek poet Homer lived. Herodotus, the father of history, guessed around 850 BC. Other ancient sources proposed that he was conjuring up transcendent imagery as early as the 12th century BC. Modern researchers, however, appear to place Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BC.

The dates, as you can see, vary wildly. All we do know is that his compositions are considered the oldest works of western literature and have had an enormous and incalculable influence throughout the history of the written word.

Bust of Homer

Homer as imagined in the Hellenistic period

But the “Homeric Question” goes deeper than just dates… Historians aren’t even sure he existed at all. His works may be the culmination of generations of storytelling, all grouped under a fictitious name and nothing else. Could one man have written both The Iliad and The Odyssey?

At the same time, the stylistic similarities between the two mammoth stories are overwhelming, suggesting that, yes, it was the result of single author. But to throw another wrench into the mix, most scholars agree that the books underwent a process of standardization and refinement in the beginning of the 8th century BC. Any wonder then that the styles were so similar…

We also can’t be certain that Homer was even a man, presuming he or she once lived. Samuel Butler, an important 19th century translator, argued that based on literary observations, it was a young Sicilian woman who wrote The Odyssey… but interestingly enough, not The Iliad.

painting of homer

Who was Homer??? Was he even a he?

So what do we know about Homer? How are we to learn anything about this ancient poet, if he or she did indeed walk this earth? Where do the clues lie to this ancient puzzle?

The answer may be obvious: We have to look at the poetry itself and piece together what we can. Unfortunately most of us do not have the time, nor the ancient greek skills to delve into the mystery ourselves…

For this reason, Classical Wisdom Weekly spoke with Ancient Greek expert A.P. David for insights into who Homer was and how we can better understand the monumental works of The Iliad and The Odyssey. A scholar and a gentleman, A.P. David also presents some alternative views on the subject… ones that might make you question everything you thought you knew about the epic poet and his (or her) writings.

Click on the play button to watch the video: