Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Ancient Guide to Modern Life

From The Guardian, by Jessica Holland
The Ancient Guide to Modern Life by Natalie Haynes
If you're looking for something that captures the spirit of ancient epics, says Natalie Haynes, forget the Hollywood versions of Troy and Beowulf. Watch television. Deadwood, The West Wing and Battlestar Galactica will do; better still is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which evokes the lonely, difficult heroism of Virgil's Aeneid. For "purest Sophoclean tragedy", you can turn to The Wire, in which Stringer Bell, like Oedipus, seals his fate by trying to change it.
As a standup and former classics scholar, Haynes is in an excellent position to tell ancient stories, although she doesn't seem too bothered about turning them into a self-help guide, as the title suggests. (Alain de Botton has that corner of the market covered, anyway.) Instead, she rattles through the politics, religion, philosophy and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, pointing out which ideas have caught on and which definitely haven't.
In the second category is the Roman practice of stuffing certain criminals into a bag with a snake, a rooster, a dog and a monkey and throwing them in a river; their suspicion that Christians were cannibals; and the Spartan tradition of having brides shave their heads and dress up like men for their wedding nights. "Anachronism isn't a healthy indulgence," Haynes writes, "but one still cries out to know what Freud would have made of all this."
In the other group are 2,000-year-old sayings we overhear every day. Next time someone tells you: "One swallow doesn't make a spring", ask them whether they knew it was Aristotle they were quoting and that the thought ends: "Similarly, one day of happiness does not make a man blessed." Another hijacked phrase is the Roman satirist Juvenal's: "Who will watch the watchmen?", which was originally about women in general being so slutty they couldn't even be locked up, because they'd seduce their guards.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Romans Who Shaped Britain

From Literary Review, April 2012
Peter Jones reviews 
The Romans Who Shaped Britain 
by Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard 
(Thames and Hudson 288pp £18.95)

1066 And All That begins with Julius Caesar’s arrival in 55 BC and the woad-covered Britons’ heroic defence ‘under their dashing queen Woadicea’. The Conquest was ‘a Good Thing since the Britons were only natives at the time’. The Romans built a wall to keep out the Picts, but then the legions left to take part in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, caused by the Romans’ desire for bread and circumstances. This ‘left Britain defenceless and subjected Europe to that long succession of Waves of which History is chiefly composed’. Britain was soon overrun by Angles, Saxons and Jutes, led by ‘Hengist and his wife (or horse?) Horsa’.

This is my sort of history: a strong, clear story line, people at the heart of it, and a lurking suspicion of theory (in this case, the ‘Wave’ theory). Sam Moorhead of the British Museum and David Stuttard take precisely the same view. The result is splendid, easily the most attractive available narrative account of Roman Britain from Caesar to the departure of the legions c. AD 410.

This is some achievement. The fact is that, with a few exceptions such as Julius Caesar’s account of his expeditions into the island in 55 and 54 BC, our literary sources are pretty scanty; and while archaeological work continues at a great rate, there is a limit to the story that mute shards and post-holes can tell. M-S do a first-rate job of integrating the two into a compelling narrative that does not disguise the interpretive problems – amply discussed in the sensible notes at the back, with full bibliography – but does the best job possible with the existing evidence.

M-S’s decision means that the story is told largely from the Roman point of view. It is not uncritical, but with little of the modern breast-beating about rotten Romans’ evil, exploitative ways. This is something of a relief. Every nation would have done precisely the same, had they been able to. They were just up against a relentless military and (for the most part) intelligent, flexible institutional system that kept the Roman empire going for c. 700 years. For many Germanic peoples living beyond the Rhine-Danube frontier, Rome’s streets were paved with gold. When the empire folded in the West, economic recovery took 200 years.

Britain, however, was not an easy province to govern. It always required standing legions. The Scots, eternal losers even then, caused pointless trouble whenever legion numbers dropped, quite incapable of seeing that it was to their advantage to reach a modus vivendi with their vastly more successful and powerful southern neighbours. Nor did the province pour much into Roman coffers.

But the pride in controlling such a mysterious, distant territory was intense, rather as we might regard a colony on the moon. Caesar’s first brief, shambolic sortie in 55 BC brought him a 20-day thanksgiving in Rome. When Claudius’ legions conquered it in AD 43, there were celebrations all over the empire. A relief in Aphrodisias (central southern Turkey) shows a youthful, heroically nude Claudius beating down a defeated Britannia, one breast bared, the first depiction we have of our island goddess (one of many magnificent illustrations). Romans wrote it up as place almost beyond imagination, where ‘they endure hunger and cold and any kind of hardship; for they plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water’. That would be the Highlands, then.

But M-S emphasise how important Britain became in the end-game of the Roman empire, when its granaries were ransacked to supply the hard-pressed Roman armies on the Rhine facing Germanic incursions. This did not go down well with the Britons, and may be one reason for Britain’s brief secession from the empire (AD 286-c. 293) under the Belgic Carausius. He demonstrated his classical learning by issuing coins stamped with references to Virgil’s Aeneid, as if he were a second Augustus, promising a new age of prosperity. One wonders what the Brits made of them. They did not impress the Romans.

There is one bizarre misjudgement. Each of the twelve chapters begins with a brief vignette of an incident in it. In these, grizzled veterans with narrow, piercing eyes unleash tidal waves of fury among troops, with their swords or armour flashing in the chilly dawn or the midday, afternoon or, as it may be, dying sun, while their horses, sleek, groomed or foam-flecked, whinny, paw the ground, snort or with flying hooves thunder over the bracken and heather in the grey drizzle of a raging storm at sea. Reader, avert the gaze.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


From The Sunday Times, February 2012

Mary Beard reviews
Thames & Hudson £18.95 pp287

The ancient Roman geographer Strabo had strong views about Britain. Writing in the early 1st century AD, he appreciated some of its more useful exports (grain, cattle, gold, silver, slaves and hunting dogs). He was impressed with the sheer size of the inhabitants (a good six inches taller than the average Roman, although with a tendency to be bandy-legged). But, with a flash of economic rationality rare in the ancient world, he was opposed to any attempt to conquer the island: quite simply, he observed, the cost of the occupying army would be more than the tributes and taxes gained for the Roman treasury.

I suspect that many Romans would later regret not taking Strabo’s advice. For more than 400 years — from the successful invasion in AD43 under the emperor Claudius, who formally turned the place into a province, to the final withdrawal of the last Roman soldiers in the early 5th century — Britain was Rome’s Afghanistan. The island was never fully under Roman control and the native guerrillas knew exactly how to make life dangerous for the occupying legions. There were some significant Roman defeats, incon¬clusive battles presented as Roman successes (starring from Julius Caesar’s ramshackle skirmish in 55BC and 54BC), and, just occasionally, a real victory over the barbarians, extravagantly hyped by the PR machine of the imperial court. Every now and then, the emperor himself or an imperial prince would visit the place for the ancient equivalent of a “mission accomplished” photo opportunity. Claudius marched into Colchester in AD43, when most of the initial fighting was safely finished, Hadrian came almost 100 years later to inaugurate his wall, and in AD297 Constantius Chlorus rode into London to reclaim Britain after a few years of rule by a provincial usurper (an event commemorated on a gorgeous gold medallion, illustrated in Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard’s new book, showing Constantius being welcomed by a kneeling Briton, along with the slogan “Restorer of Eternal Light”). The authors tell a lively story of Roman interventions in the province. It is an unashamedly “great man” view of history. There’s no truck here with what they call “the fog of academic theory” and little interest in the deeper structures of Roman rule or even in Strabo-style economics. But the book has the great merit of getting to grips with the story of the province well beyond Hadrian — after whom most people’s knowledge of Roman Britain tends to flag — and it offers a wonderful gallery of later characters, whose careers in part “shaped” the province. 

One memorable walk-on role is taken by Marcus Aurelius Mauseus Carausius: native of Gaul, claimant to the imperial throne and the man whose downfall Constantius’s medallion celebrated. In what is now a puzzling series of moves, in the late 3rd century AD, Carausius went from being a commander of Roman troops against German raiders to a break-away emperor based in Britain, with London as his capital city. “Barbarian” he certainly was not; in a way he was more Roman than the Romans. As Moorhead and Stuttard illustrate, he minted a series of coins and medals carrying quotations from Virgil’s Aeneid and Eclogues. No Roman emperor had used the classics of Latin poetry in this way before (though it is the ultimate precedent for the Virgilian tag, Decus a Tutamen — “An ornament and a safeguard” — on our modern £1 coin).

If the authors have a fault, it is one shared by many enthusiastic students of Roman Britain: on one hand, they tend to overestimate how important the province was to the Romans (there would have been no security crisis, but only a few lost photo opportunities, if the place had been let go — some¬thing that may be equally true of Afghanistan); on the other, they imply that the impact of the Romans on Britain was greater than it was. Historians have often liked to imagine that the province was “Romanised”, sharing its culture with Italy at the heart of the empire. The archeologist who dug up the Roman “palace” at Fishbourne in Sussex went so far as to claim that some of the wall decoration there had been painted by the same artist whose work was still visible on the walls of villas around the Bay of Naples, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79.

That was, of course, a wild fantasy. The truth, as Moorhead and Stuttard more or less concede, is that the “Romans” who controlled Roman Britain were much more often provincial “Romans” from Gaul (such as Carausius), not metropolitan types from Italy. And for most people, peasant life went on much as it had done before they arrived. True, some people did move into the new towns of the province, learnt Latin and sported togas (another aspect of their slavery, as the Roman historian Tacitus put it); others, implacably opposed to Rome, made it their mission to terrorise the occupying forces. But when the last legions left (a story well told in this book) I doubt that the majority of Britons on their farmsteads noticed much of a difference — apart from lower taxes.

Tibullus: Elegies

Natalie Haynes reviews
Tibullus: Elegies, with parallel Latin text, tr. by AM Juster, with notes by Robert Maltby
(Oxford World's Classics)

The Observer, Sunday 25 March 2012
Tibullus is hardly the best known of the Latin love poets. An heir to the work of Catullus and a friend and inspiration to Ovid, he has somehow been overlooked where they have not. Perhaps it's because his work falls between them: he's neither as melodramatic as Catullus nor as arch as Ovid.
While Catullus burns with love for the fickle Lesbia, and Ovid advises the naughty people of Rome on the best place to cop a feel in public (at the theatre, where brushing up against someone is bound to happen…), Tibullus does neither. Sure, he fulfils the dramatic conventions of the lover: he is sickened by love, like a seasick sailor, burned and beaten by it, like a brutalised slave.
He's also locked out by love, or at least by a lover. Of his surviving 16 poems (the new Oxford World's Classics edition sensibly dismisses a third book once attributed to Tibullus as the work of another writer), three are paraklausithyra: songs at a locked door.
But his love isn't pure for Delia, the passion of his first book. He also has feelings for an urban courtesan, Nemesis, who inspires poems in the second book. In addition, he's infatuated with a handsome boy, Marathus, and all these relationships are coloured by further entanglements. As Robert Maltby's excellent notes for this new translation explain, Tibullus was a man with a very complicated love life.
AM Juster's translation is terrifically easy to read: he has captured plenty of Tibullus's Latin in his English. If we sometimes lose a pungent phrase (for me, the Latin "Who could bear arms against a god?" is rather punchier than "and who can fight a god?"), it is a small price to pay for a translation that tries and succeeds to recreate the confident style of a complex poet.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Memorial by Alice Oswald – review

From The Guardian, October 2 2011
by Kate Kellaway

Alice Oswald made her name with a book-length poem: Dart. A tribute to the Devon river made up of her own and other people's voices, it won the 2002 TS Eliot prize. On the face of it, her latest book – an "excavation" of Homer's The Iliad – is not comparable, except that, like Dart, it is an extended homage. It's a poem written out of love for a story that matters to her as much as the rivers that have inspired her. Oswald is a classicist and, in her preface, writes of her hope that the poem does not depend upon "context" – readers are not obliged to lean on Homer. She need not fear: the poem stands by itself.

Having said that, it was reading Memorial alongside The Iliad (in Robert Fagles's translation) that made me feel the full force of Oswald's achievement. The task she has set herself is a poetic filleting (or, as she describes it, the "reckless dismissal" of seven-eighths of Homer's narrative) and a memorialising of every soldier, juxtaposed with extended similes – a Greek chorus of them. She describes herself as trying to retrieve the poem's enargeia, which translates as "bright, unbearable reality", and writes that she is doing this "as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you are worshipping".

The opening pages list the names of more than 200 dead. Reading them is equivalent to the poignancy of skimming surnames on a war memorial. But as the poem gets going, the risk Oswald runs is obvious: if each death is a foregone conclusion, the danger is of monotonous tragedy – each new casualty is likely to have less impact than the one before. Yet the miraculous thing is that this danger is somehow averted. The poem works in the opposite way: it builds. All poetry has a memorial aspect – the fixing of a moment, a place, the passing of a life. But this is remembering on a grand scale. This is a concentrated, intense, multi-tasking elegy. And it is written with a freshness to match Homer's own – as if each soldier had died on the day of writing.

What Oswald does is to give each doomed person an extra breath of life, a moment in the sunlight of her attention, even though, sometimes, there is little or nothing to record about the life. It is death that characterises the man and each death is different.The style is urgent, simple and spare. There are no ornamental phrases to hide behind: "Grief is black it is made of earth/ It gets into the cracks in the eyes/ It lodges its lump in the throat." It is a disturbing idea: grief as burial. Elsewhere, too, humble images are powerful. One soldier, in death, is described as like a child clinging to a mother: "Wanting to be light again/ wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted/ And carried on a hip."

Homer is full of marvellous images of armies as swarming bees, flattened fields of corn, waves that come in convoy. Oswald's poetic structure itself contains grand rhythms – rather like the sea. The extended similes are printed twice. They come at you like repeated waves. They push the poem forward and draw it back. There is a line in Homer that translates as the "trance of war" and this describes the poem's atmosphere. I long to hear Memorial performed; it would be tremendous. As the death toll rises, one becomes aware that only one thing survives – a life force carrying everything with it: the poem itself.

Grief is black it is made of earth

It gets into the cracks in the eyes

It lodges its lump in the throat

When a man sees his brother on the ground

He goes mad he comes running out of nowhere

Lashing without looking and that was how COON died

First he wounded Agamemnon

Then he grabbed his brother's stiffened foot

And tried to drag him home shouting

Help for god's sake this is Iphidamas

Someone please help but Agamemnon

Cut off his head and that was that

Two brothers killed on the same morning by the same man

That was their daylight here finished

And their long nightshift in the underworld just beginning

The above is an extract from Alice Oswald's Memorial

Thursday, September 15, 2011

THE SONG OF ACHILLIES by Madeline Miller

From The Independent, September 11 2011
Vivian Groskop reviews

The Song of Achilles, By Madeline Miller

For a whistlestop tour around the life and times of Achilles, you'd be hard pressed to find a better guide than Madeline Miller.

This young, first-time novelist has a BA and MA from Brown University in Latin and Ancient Greek and has studied at the Yale School of Drama, specialising in adapting classical tales for a modern audience. Something about this accomplished and enjoyable novel makes you feel it's the book she's been working up to for her whole life thus far. And that's very satisfying for the reader indeed. The Song of Achilles is original, clever and in a class of its own.

The setting is Greece in the age of heroes. When Patroclus, a complicated and stubborn young prince, accidentally kills a man, he is exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. There, he is raised by King Peleus, who is the father of Achilles, a youth the same age as Patroclus. Whereas Patroclus is geeky, awkward and self-conscious, Achilles is strong, handsome and regal. "This is what a prince should be," thinks Patroclus. They become unlikely companions and, eventually, lovers.

Sex aside, so far this sounds like something out of a prep-school classics lesson, circa 1984. But Miller works hard to transcend the potentially preachy limitations of her material, and The Song of Achilles is an incredibly compelling and seductive read. Her skill is considerable: she has to make us believe in Achilles and Patroclus almost as if they were modern-day characters in a Hollywood movie. (I have to confess to seeing a young Brad Pitt as Achilles throughout; Patroclus would probably be Steve Carell, who played the 40-year-old virgin in the movie of that name. In fact, both Pitt and Carell are too old for these roles, and no one would want to see the sex scenes.)

This is a tale of love and betrayal set against the backdrop of the epically long Trojan War. The gods are continually intervening and trying to make sense of things, while the men rampage around trying to appease the gods and get what they want at the same time. Achilles spends most of his time brandishing his sword and killing people without really registering it. He doesn't know his own strength.

There is one man whom Achilles must avoid killing, and that is his arch-rival Hector. He knows the prophecy: Hector dies first, then Achilles. So as long as Hector lives, Achilles is safe. As Patroclus puts it: "And Hector must live, always, he must never die, not even when he is old, not even when he is so withered that his bones slide beneath his skin like loose rocks in a stream."

Patroclus is a beautifully drawn, complex character; the real hero of the story. He is what we all fear we might be – pathetic in the face of fate – but his honesty and practicality make him a loveable chap, especially when he takes on the role of war camp medic and gets to know all of the great warriors' flaws. "Nestor with his throat syrup, honeyed and warmed, that he wanted at the end of a day; Menelaus and the opiate he took for his headaches; Ajax's acid stomach. It moved me to see how much they trusted me, turned hopeful faces towards me for comfort." (At this point in the novel, the seven-stone weakling of the piece was suddenly seeming a bit more like George Clooney to me.)

Although Patroclus purports to be a coward, we know that the only person whom he really fears is Achilles' mother, the cruel sea goddess Thetis. She is forever popping up with blood spilling out of her lips, kidnapping Achilles to warn him of the evil ways of men – and then to grieve that even she cannot save him from them. The interplay between the gods and men in The Song of Achilles is wonderful: no one is ever completely in control, although this doesn't stop both sides from persuading themselves that, at some particular moment, they are the ones with the power.

Of course, you can't write a book with "Achilles" in the title without it having a heel of some kind. And this novel's greatest flaw is also its key strength. It is arguably a book of Greek history for idiots. It's not a pretentious and complicated work. There is plenty of sexual tension (and actual sex), much of it homoerotic: Brokeback Mountain sets sail for Troy. But it has all this – necessarily, as sex is the whole point of the story, and much of Achilles' power rests on his masculine allure – without being remotely trashy. It's an entirely successful piece of writing, sitting comfortably between literary and commercial fiction genres. It does what the best novels do – it transports you to another world – as well as doing something that few novels bother to: it makes you feel incredibly clever.

Of course, if we were all better read in classical history, perhaps we would not need to read a novel like this at all. The Song of Achilles just made me glad that I was ignorant enough to really enjoy it.


From Literary Review, September 2011

Peter Jones reviews THE CRIMES OF ELAGABALUS: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor, by Martjin Icks

The popular image of a Roman emperor is probably determined by Nero: fat, corrupt and doomed but determined to go out in a blaze of orgies, alcohol and mayhem. Elagabalus (actually Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), worshipper of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal whom he intended to replace Jupiter at the head of the Roman pantheon, makes Nero look an amateur. Brought to power in AD 218 at age fourteen by his family in a desperate bid to maintain Antonine rule, he lasted four years before being done to death in the arms of his mother after a reign of which Gibbon said its ‘inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country’. Even if accounts are only half accurate, one can see why.

Here are some extracts from one of the three sources for his life, the *Historia Augusta* (so named in 1603) a collection of lives of the emperors, put together probably sometime in the fourth century AD. Authorship is debatable – the great Sir Ronald Syme thought it put together by a rogue university teacher with a strong imagination and powerful sense of humour – but it gives a general idea of the sort of person we are talking about.

Depilated and made up like a woman, ‘the recipient of lust in every orifice of his body’, he sent agents looking for men with large organs to satisfy his passions. He put a dancer-cum-actor in charge of the Praetorian Guard, and a barber of the grain supply. The size of a man’s organ often determined the post he was given. His feasting and parties were a riot: ‘He would often shut his friends up when they were drunk and suddenly, in the night, let in lions and leopards and bears - rendered harmless - so that when they woke up they would find at dawn, or what is worse, at night, lions, bears and panthers in the same bedroom as themselves. Several of them died as a result of this.’

He invented a prototype whoopee-cushion: ‘Many of his humbler friends he used to seat on air-pillows instead of cushions and would let out the air while they were dining, so that often the diners were suddenly found under the tables. Finally, he was the first to think of setting out a semi-circle on the ground, not on couches, so that the air-cushions might be loosened by slave-boys at their feet, to let out the air … When already emperor, he used to order ten thousand mice to be brought to him, or a thousand weasels, or a thousand shrew-mice… He served his parasites with dinners made of glass… Sometimes, however, paintings were served up to them, so that they were served with everything, as it were, and yet were tortured with hunger…’.

Since an early, violent death had been predicted for him, he even had a suicide tower built ‘with gilded and jewelled boards spread underneath in front of him,… saying that even his death ought to be costly and of an extravagant pattern…’ (all tr. by Anthony Birley, Lives of the Later Caesars).

He was, in other words, the sort of emperor the Arts Council would have died for, and while Icks very diligently tries to sort out historical fact from fiction in the first half of the book, this is where his real interest lies – Elagabalus’ ‘cultural legacy’.

He re-emerged in the course of the fourteenth century ‘rediscovery’ of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Commonly seen as the archetypal tyrant who was above the law and committed only to his own personal desires, he was amusingly touted as the perfect ruler of an anti-utopian society by Thomas Artus (1605) in an attack on the French state of the time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, the emphasis shifted from the perfect tyrant to the perfect paradigm of sexual ambivalence, orientalism, ennui and decay. Moral disapproval disappeared and art for art’s sake held the centre stage: Elagabalus the performer with the whole world his audience, the ‘pure product of aestheticism at all costs’ (David).

Maurice, the hero of Didier’s La DestinĂ©e (1900), found in him ‘the incomparable artist’, determined to cross every boundary in the search for the unrealisable. Inevitably he is turned into an ancient pop-star in Thomas Jonigk’s opera Heliogabal (2003), with the novel message that stars come and go. He was now a positive figure, battling the morals and values of the day in the name of self-realisation and sexual liberty: in fact, ‘just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks’ (a Neil Gaiman comic, 1992).

Just about sums it up, really. But ‘reception studies’ being all the rage in university classics departments at the moment at the expense of the serious study of the language and culture of the ancient world, I can already see a flock of bleating receptionists being herded together on the horizon to do yet more, pointless ‘research’ into this ghastly creature. But once you have done the historical job on him, which Icks has, the rest is intellectual froth. Comprendre tout, c’est pardonner tout. No, it isn’t.