A postscript to Reverend Grainger of St Giles

How lovely to see my work used in this fascinating context!

The Whitley Pump

Plaque to John Cecil Grainger in St Giles Church

In October, the Whitley Pump wrote about the impressive memorial to Rev John Cecil Grainger of St Giles, who died in 1857, and was buried in Reading Old Cemetery. His parishioners also erected a tablet in St Giles Church.

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I have not been very good at updating my blog recently – between marking, my admin roles, and my desire to finish my next monograph (more about that anon!), there simply has not been a lot of spare time.

Will you forgive me for an update that has little to do with my interests in the ancient world (though I wrote about this problem before), but a lot to do with another hobby of mine – analogue photography – as well as my desire to make this world at least a little bit better?

As regular readers of my blog may know, I live in Reading, Berkshire in the United Kingdom. I have been living here for almost ten years. Over the last few years, homelessness has become an ever increasing, ever more visible issue in Reading.

I take my time to talk to the homeless people of Reading, without judging them, their past, their present, or their future. Sometimes I ask them whether I may take their photo. Many decline. Others don’t.

Just like myself, my camera doesn’t judge these people. I don’t have any desire to ‘document’ anything. But I cannot just look away.

Can we make Reading a little better? Would you be willing to support my fundraising campaign for Launchpad Reading, a local charity that does some amazing work to support Reading’s homeless people and rough sleepers?

Click here for my fundraising campaign on JustGiving.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

I’d be ever so grateful for your support, however big or small. (I set a very modest target of £150. But there’s no maximum to what we can give!)

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Love, death, and blissful ignorance: Pliny and the origins of photography

Pliny the Elder, ancient Rome’s great encyclopedist, did not, of course, describe the origins of modern photography – a technique and art that was greatly advanced in Reading, Berkshire, by William Henry Fox Talbot (as described in this wonderful book).

Yet, in his description of the origins of clay modelling that follows the history of painting in the 35th book of Pliny’s Naturalis historia, he also captures the quintessential idea of ‘photography’ (as in ‘drawing with light‘) when he writes that (Plin. nat. 35.151, transl. J. Bostock – H. T. Riley):

De pictura satis superque. contexuisse his et plasticen conveniat eiusdem operae terrae. Fingere ex argilla similitudines Butades Sicyonius figulus primus invenit Corinthi filiae opera, quae capta amore iuvenis, abeunte illo peregre, umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit, quibus pater eius inpressa argilla typum fecit et cum ceteris fictilibus induratum igni proposuit, eumque servatum in Nymphaeo, donec Mummius Corinthum everterit, tradunt.

On painting we have now said enough, and more than enough; but it will be only proper to append some accounts of the plastic art. Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first who invented, at Corinth, the art of modelling portraits in the earth which he used in his trade. It was through his daughter that he made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp. Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline, by compressing clay upon the surface, and so made a face in relief, which he then hardened by fire along with other articles of pottery. This model, it is said, was preserved in the Nymphaeum at Corinth, until the destruction of that city by Mummius.

The Origin of Painting by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1785

Butades’ nameless daughter, in love with an (equally nameless) youth who was set to go abroad, traced the young man’s shade (a word that the Romans also used for rough-and-ready effigies, as I recently mentioned).

The silhouette, one may infer, was to remind her of her love (soon to be far away) for the duration of his absence in the same way that photography nowadays is employed to make us indulge in our thoughts of those (people, moments, occasions) that are now far away (and potentially never come back).

In Pliny’s story, the light of the lantern (lucerna – for some thoughts about ancient lamps see here, by the way) provides Butades’ daughter with a shade (umbra) of her love interest which she then perpetuates on the surface of a wall (paries) by drawing lines around it (lineis circumscripsit).

Pompeian impression of Butades’ daughter’s love interest (no, not really: as Plato said in his Symposium, don’t believe everything you read on the internet!).

The Latin term for shade, umbra, is a loaded one, however, as umbra is also the term that refers to the spirits of the underworld (as discussed before).


Mortified through photography: a flock of geese over Hallig Hooge, Germany. – (c) PK, April 2017.

There is nothing in Pliny’s discourse that would suggest an allusion to this double meaning.

But conceptually, I find, this is an interesting coincidence – as capturing a fleeting moment in life through photography (whether in the accepted meaning of that term or in the production of a silhouette) ultimately brings to a standstill and thus mortifies a moment in the ever-changing, ever-evolving continuum of our lives – a moment that will never recur and that cannot ever be brought back in the exact same way that it was on that one occasion.

Tracing of silhouettes, according to Pliny, was one of the possible ways in which painting (pictura) came to be (Plin. nat. 35.15–16):

De picturae initiis incerta nec instituti operis quaestio est. Aegyptii sex milibus annorum aput ipsos inventam, priusquam in Graeciam transiret, adfirmant, vana praedicatione, ut palam est; Graeci autem alii Sicyone, alii aput Corinthios repertam, omnes umbra hominis lineis circumducta, itaque primam talem, secundam singulis coloribus et monochromaton dictam, postquam operosior inventa erat, duratque talis etiam nunc. inventam liniarem a Philocle Aegyptio vel Cleanthe Corinthio primi exercuere Ardices Corinthius et Telephanes Sicyonius, sine ullo etiamnum hi colore, iam tamen spargentes linias intus. ideo et quos pinere adscribere institutum.

We have no certain knowledge as to the commencement of the art of painting, nor does this enquiry fall under our consideration. The Egyptians assert that it was invented among themselves, six thousand years before it passed into Greece; a vain boast, it is very evident. As to the Greeks, some say that it was invented at Sicyon, others at Corinth; but they all agree that it originated in tracing lines round the human shadow. The first stage of the art, they say, was this, the second stage being the employment of single colours; a process known as “monochromaton,” after it had become more complicated, and which is still in use at the present day. The invention of line-drawing has been assigned to Philocles, the Egyptian, or to Cleanthes of Corinth. The first who practised this line-drawing were Aridices, the Corinthian, and Telephanes, the Sicyonian, artists who, without making use of any colours, shaded the interior of the outline by drawing lines; hence, it was the custom with them to add to the picture the name of the person represented.

There is another aspect to the story of Butades’ daughter, however – again something that Pliny does not mention or allude to, but that is interesting conceptually to those who (like myself) enjoy overthinking the photographic art.


A moment frozen in time: water fountain in front of Berlin’s Lutheran cathedral. – (c) PK, April 2017.

Butades’ daughter, in creating a memory of her lover by tracing his shade, arguably eternalises the exact opposite of his true nature.

Remember Plato’s allegory of the cave? The cave in which shadow puppetry represents the lowest level of insight and understanding and in which the shades are furthest from what represents the ideal?

Butades’ daughter embraces just that (and her father goes further still, by creating a reproduction of it in yet another medium): she is not seeking for truth; she is perpetuating reflections, documenting distortions, reducing four dimensions into two – imitating an imitation of an idea, as Plato might have put it.

It is this particular power of photography, the ability to freeze a small frame of a much more complex reality and to eternalise a particular take on it (with all its surprising elements, often hidden in plain view), that fascinates me most about it.

It is what makes it an art, in a Platonic sense – an art whose creator has no real insights into the ideal, and yet manages to capture something that seems to relate to it.


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Bokelmann’s shade

I am in North Frisia right now, spending a few days by the North Sea shore with my son. I fell in love with this primordial landscape when I was a child myself (rather longer ago than I care to admit).

Today, among other things, we paid a trip to Husum, the district capital and birthplace of famous German novelist Theodor Storm. In Husum’s church of St. Mary, a building otherwise most austere, I encountered the following memorial:


The frame, as a German inscription at the top reveals, was restored in 1901 by one Wilhelm Jensen ‘der ursprügl. Bemalung getreu’, i. e. faithful to its original decoration.

The monument’s central piece is a painting of a man who is identified by an added Latin poem (a rather inelegantly formed elegiac distich) as well as a date and an indication of his age at the time of his sitting:

Ista Peteri Bokelmanni pastoris imago est
hunc precor ad formam, Christe, refinge tuam.

Anno Christi

Anno aetatis
suae 68.

This is the image of Peter Bokelmann, the priest:
Christ, I pray: shape him in your likeness.

A. D. 1572.

Aged 68.

Peter Bokelmann (1505–1576) was a Lutheran theologian of the first generation. He came to Husum in 1527 as a teacher and then, after a period of absence, again in 1552 as a preacher.

After his death, as a number of old books reveal, the following lines were added to the painting (again in the form of elegiac distichs, and again without much metrical skill):

Umbra Bokelmanni datur hic tibi conspicienda:
membra cubant infra, mens tenet astra poli.
Quinque fuit lustris in coetu pastor Husensi:
laus post fata eius vivida semper erit.

Bokelmann’s shade is here for you to behold:
his bones rest below, his mind grasps heaven’s stars.
For twenty-five years he was the priest in Husum’s parish:
his praise will live forever after his demise.

While the two hexameter (= odd) lines give specific information, the pentameter  (= even) lines of the poem consist of segments in common use in contemporary funerary poetry; they express the belief in a divide of below (as permanent dwelling for the mortal remains) vs. above (for the immortal soul, here thought of as the mind – a mind that reaches for the stars) as well as the desire for eternal praise.

What struck me, however, was the image (no pun intended) created in the first hexameter: the painting is referred to as umbra Bokelmanni, Bokelmann’s shade, for the beholder to see.

Umbra, ‘shade’, when it comes to paintings, is a term that in ancient sources is used specifically to refer to the dark elements of paintings, but also to denote a faded appearance, a semblance, something of lesser quality than an effigy. On the other hand, umbra can refer to shades in the sense of apparitions, ghosts – the dwellers of the underworld.

In an otherwise rather pedestrian poem, use of the loaded, multifaceted term umbra – just ahead of a line that, just like death, separates the physical remains (membra) from the spirit (mens) – referring to a dark painting that captures likeness of the late Peter Bokelmann, seemed rather imaginative.

And yet the umbra, the shade from the other side, is fixed and under control: datur … conspicienda, it is presented here, ‘is here … to behold’ – nothing creepy about it.

What is imagined as alive and thriving alone is his laus, his everlasting praise.

A fair judgement: 441 years after Bokelmann’s death, we still get to commemorate him.

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No graffiti please!

Yesterday news broke about houses that were defaced with graffiti (or, strictly speaking, dipinti – after all, the text was painted onto, not scratched into, the surface) in Cambridge – in Latin:

Locus in domos … loci populum is a meaningless phrase – until one enters it into Google Translate, which, according to some mystery algorithm, renders it as ‘local homes for local people’.

Admiror o parìens te non cedidisse ruinis qui tot | scriptorum taedia sustineas, ‘I am amazed, oh wall, that you have not collapsed, for you bear so many writers’ tedious items’, one may be tempted to respond, quoting a famous graffito from Pompeii (CIL IV 1904 (cf. p. 213. 465); CLE 957) – whether one agrees with the actual stance taken by the aspiring Cambridge Latinists or not.

In case the rightful owners wish to respond in rather better Latin (though probably lost on the original writers), here are some actual examples of how people in the Roman world requested their property be spared from such unwelcome decoration:

  • C(aius) Iulius Anicetus | ex imperio Solis | rogat ne quis uelit | parietes aut triclias | inscribere aut | scariphare. || P(ublius) Scantius Suru[s] | sibi et cognatis s[uis]. | D(ecimus) Folius Succe[ssus].
    Gaius Iulius Anicetus, at the behest of Sol, requests that you refrain from writing onto, or scratching into, the walls or gazebos (?). || Publius Scantius Surus for himself and his relatives. Decimus Folius Successus.
    (CIL VI 52 (cf. p 831. 3003. 3755) cf. VI 25990 (cf. p. 3532); ILS 4335; Rome)
  • In fr(onte) p(edes) XXII, in ag(ro) p(edes) XXVI. M(arcus) Camurius P(ubli) f(ilius) Rom(ilia tribu) Soranus. Hoc monumentum heredem non sequitur. Se[i] hoc monumento ullius candidati nomen inscripsero ne ualeam.
    Twenty-two feet long, twenty-six feet wide. Marcus Camurius Soranus, son of Publius, of the Romilian tribe. This monument does not pass to an heir. If I ever inscribe the name of any candidate on this monument, may I perish!
    (CIL VI 14313 (cf. p. 3912); ILS 8205; Rome)
  • Quis [h]eic [ulla? s]cr[ipser]it [t]abe[scat] n[eque] nominetur.
    Whoever shall write (have written?) something here, may he rot and fail to get elected.
    (CIL IV 7521; Pompeii being Pompeii, someone responded: quis scripsit?, ‘Wrote who?’)
  • Ita ualeas scriptor, hoc monimentum | praeteri.
    Farewell indeed, writer, just make your way past this monument.
    (CIL V 1490; CLE 196; ILS 8207a; Aquileia)

Or, for the lover of a somewhat more straight-forward discourse, …

  • Πάντες δια|γράφουσι, ἐγὼ μό|νος οὐδὲν ἔγραψα. | Πυγίζω πάντες τούτ[ους οἳ] | ἐπὶ τοίχο γράφουσι.
    Everybody writes here, I alone refrained from doing so. I sodomise whoever writes on this wall.
    (M. Della Corte – P. Ciprotti, Inscriptiones Parietales Ostienses (Studia et Documenta Historiae et Iuris 27), 1961, 324–341, no. 61; Ostia).

(For further texts, see an article that I published in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik in 2010.)

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Blast from the past

The Roman fabulist Phaedrus opens the third book of his Fabulae with the following piece (Phaedr. 3.1, my translation):

Anus ad amphoram

Anus iacere vidit epotam amphoram,
adhuc Falerna faece ex testa nobili
odorem quae iucundum late spargeret.
hunc postquam totis avida traxit naribus:
“o suavis anima! quale te dicam bonum
antehac fuisse, tales cum sint reliquiae?”
hoc quo pertineat, dicet qui me noverit.

In English:

Says the crone to the amphora…

A crone saw a drunk-up amphora lying around,
exuding from its noble shell, with dregs of Falernian,
an exhilarating scent still, far and wide.
Greedily she inhaled it, being all nose, and said:
‘Oh sweet spirit! How can I describe how good you once were
when what is left of you is of such quality?’
What this may signify will explain who knows me.

The ‘drunk old woman’ is a stereotype and stock character in Greco-Roman literature – and one that has famously found its most powerful expression in a sculpture now in the Glyptothek in Munich – a piece that (as far as I understand) was not at all designed to evoke pity, but to entertain.

Should we take it at face value? Is it a cheap crack at an old lady who can’t shake her addictions, an old lady so desperate that even a mere whiff from a disused wine vessel will provide shallow happiness?

Phaedrus tends to be rather more intelligent than that, and, unsurprisingly, scholars have taken a number of different views on the poem’s meaning. Justification for that lies in the poem’s concluding line – hoc quo pertineat, ‘what this may signify’, or, more literally, ‘where this belongs’.

So was it a poem to be read against the declining age of the emperor? Or is it a poem about the poet himself, his increasing age, and his poetry (as he opens a new collection of Fabulae)?

Poetry lends itself to manifold interpretations and re-interpretations, and, like with any work of art, the beholder’s preconceptions, emotions, and knowledge will be reflected in what is the centre of their attention. The poet’s genius is reflected in the piece’s openness to such readings and re-readings.

What puzzles me, however, is how much the focus tends to be on the poem’s Falernian dregs, as though the poem was about the residue and the remnants of quality wine (wine so good that even a faint memory, their anima, will still trigger compliments!) or about the vessel itself, a testa nobilis, a noble shell, that once was capable of the conveying a most precious load.

What if the poem were about the crone herself, as the title suggests?

What if Phaedrus carefully avoided the stereotype of the old drunkard as the butt of a cheap joke, rendering her a true connoisseur, someone experienced enough to tell quality wine from cheap plonk, happy to appreciate the good that is left in what is now an empty, unyielding shell?

What if Phaedrus, playing with our reflex-like urge to see stereotypes where there aren’t any, tells us a story about someone whom we might quickly dismiss as an old, miserable drunkard, but who, in actual fact, is of a very different nature: someone who, having taken a deep breath, rejoices over the sweet spirit as a faint, yet welcome reminder of a long-gone quality wherever it emerges – rather than to be disappointed over the lack of cheap roadside intoxication?

It may seem tempting, especially in stressful times, to read this poem as an expression of depletion and exhaustion.

But to do so means to make the wine the fable’s focus (and rejecting the role of the old crone in this narrative from the outset): a dangerous move when it comes to an author who, originating from a low social background himself, consistently exposes the faults of those who think that with power comes possession of the moral high ground.

It is the old crone and vessel itself that make up the very title of the piece, and it is the fabulist himself, rather than the old crone, who praise the quality of the empty shell as noble (nobilis) and the scent of the Falernian dregs as exhilarating (iucundum) – a scent that is still there, far and wide (late).

‘What this may signify’ (hoc quo pertineat) therefore (to my mind anyway) is what is said at the poem’s very centre: wherever one gets to encounter a delightful whiff of a quality that now appears to be long gone, take a deep breath and be greedy – take delight, praise the spirit … and never forget that this is only a faint memory of what used to exist!

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Valentine’s Valour

As the world once again celebrates undying love, chocolate, and flowers, it may be of interest to recall the story of Saint Valentine himself for a change.

In his Legenda Aurea (‘Golden Legend’ – legend not as in ‘he’s a legend’, though Valentine certainly was perceived that way by some, but from Latin legenda, ‘stories that must be read’), some 1,000 years after Saint Valentine’s death, Jacobus de Voragine recorded the story behind Valentine as follows (J. de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, ch. 42; my translation):

De Sancto Valentino

Valentinus dicitur quasi valorem tenens, hoc est, in sanctitate perseverans. Vel dicitur Valentinus, quasi valens tyro, id est, miles Christi. Miles dicitur valens, qui nunquam cecidit, fortiter ferit, se valenter defendit, potenter vincit. Sic Valentinus non cessit martirium vitando , percussit ydololatriam evacuando , defendit fidem communiendo, vicit patiendo.


Jacobus de Voragine, De Sancto Valentino in Ms. Aug. Perg. 256 f. 54r. (Image source: http://digital.blb-karlsruhe.de/blbhs/content/pageview/3447244)

Valentinus reverendus presbiter fuit, quem Claudius imperator ad se adduci faciens interrogavit dicens: quid est Valentine? cur amicitia nostra non frueris, ut Deos nostros adores et superstitionem tuae abjicias vanitatis. Cui Valentinus: si gratiam Dei scires, ista nequaquam diceres, sed ab ydolis animum revocares et Deum, qui est in coelis , adorares. Tunc quidam, qui Claudio adstabat, dixit: quid vis dicere, Valentine, de sanctitate Deorum nostrorum? Cui Valentinus: ego de iis nil dico , nisi quod fuerunt homines miseri et omni immunditia pleni. Ad quem Claudius: si Christus verus Deus est, cur mihi non dicis, quod verum est? Cui Valentinus: vere Christus solus est Deus, in quem si credideris, anima tua salvabitur, respublica augebitur, omnium inimicorum tibi victoria concedetur. Respondens autem Claudius adstantibus dixit: viri Romani audite , quam sapienter et recte homo loquitur iste. Tunc dixit praefectus: seductus est imperator: quomodo deseremus, quod ab infantia tenuimus ? Et tunc cor Claudii immutatum est. Traditur autem cuidam principi in custodiam et cum in domum ejus ductus fuisset, dixit: domine Jesu Christe, verum lumen. illumina domum istam, ut te verum Deum cognoscant. Cui praefectus: miror te dicentem, quod Christus est lumen: equidem si filiam meam diu caecam illuminaverit, faciam, quaecunque praeceperis. Tunc Valentinus orans ejus filiam caecam illuminavit et omnes de domu sua convertit. Tunc imperator Valentinum decollari praecepit circa annum domini CCLXXX.

Saint Valentine

Valentine’s name means ‘possessing valour’, i. e. ‘enduring in sanctity’. Valentinus may also mean ‘valiant recruit’, i. e. a soldier of Christ. One calls a soldier valiant when he never fell, fought bravely, defended himself with valour, and won with might. Thus Valentine did not avoid martyrdom by ducking it, thus he smashed idolatry by removing it, thus he defended the faith by strengthening it, and thus he won through suffering.

Valentine was a revered priest, whom Claudius (scil. II. Gothicus) the Emperor had ordered to be brought to him and interrogated, saying: ‘What is it, Valentine? Why do you not enjoy our friendship enough to worship our gods and discard the superstition that is your vanity?’ Valentinus said to him: ‘If you knew the grace of God, you would by no means say those things, but you would withdraw your mind from the idols and worship God who is in heaven.’ Then someone who stood with Claudius said: ‘What do you wish to say, Valentine, about the sanctity of our gods?’ Valentine said to him: ‘I do not say anything about them, except that they once were men and full of impurity.’ Claudius said to him: ‘If Christ truly is God, why do you not tell me what is true?’ Valentine said to him: ‘Truly, Christ alone is God: if you’d believe in him, your soul will be saved, the state will grow, and you will obtain victory against all enemies.’ Claudius in turn said to those who stood with him: ‘Listen, Romans, how wisely and correctly this man speaks!’ Then the prefect said: ‘The emperor has been deceived: how shall we abandon what we held since our earliest childhood?’ And then Claudius’ heart was changed. Claudius handed him over in some provost’s custody, and when Valentine had been led to that man’s home, he said: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, true light, enlighten this house, so that they may see that you truly are God.’ The prefect said to him: ‘I wonder why you say that Christ is the light: if, however, he restores eyesight to my daughter, who has now been blind for a long time, I will do whatever you teach.’ Then Valentine prayed and restored eyesight to the man’s blind daughter and converted everyone in his house. Then the emperor ordered to have Valentine decapitated around the year of the Lord 280.

One may find it difficult to subscribe to the overtly proselytising message of Jacobus’ legend of St. Valentine. One may beg to differ, profoundly, over the question whether or not Christian faith is the sole (or even any) way to illumination.

And yet –

A powerful ruler who feels so insecure about himself that he makes friendship and protection dependent on shared beliefs and opinion?

A profoundly backwards adviser to the ruler who ensures that reasoning, especially whenever there is a slightest danger of getting through to the ruler, will not be listened to, removing those whose opinions and convictions differ from their convenient, fabled childhood memories?

Provision of help to those in need (on request!) and provision of evidence as triggers of one’s ultimate downfall in times of (metaphorical or real) unenlightenment?

Those are times that call for people who possess valour. (But let’s have undying love, chocolate, and flowers too! And yes, contrary to what a popular meme currently going around on social media suggests, it is STILL okay to have chocolate on this day, as my colleague Mark Humphries has pointed out here.)

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Drama queens: Ummidia and Messalina acting it out

Yesterday I had the immense pleasure to present – again – at the JACT GCSE Latin and Greek Conference at Westminster School London. My talk covered two set texts for the GCSE Latin – Pliny’s letter 7.24 (on Ummidia Quadratilla) and Tacitus’ Annals 11 (on Messalina). (For a full version of Pliny’s letter see also here (for the Latin) and here (for an English translation)). I am most grateful to Mr Andy Mylne for the invitation.

Here is a recording of my talk (including its powerpoint presentation):

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Hard shell, soft core

The late antique poet Claudian wrote a series of seven short epigrams on a fluid inclusion (or ‘enhydro’); these poems form part of a collection of Carmina minora (‘Shorter poems’), where they feature under the title De crystallo cui aqua inerat (‘On a crystal that contained water’; my translations):


Possedit glacies naturae signa prioris
et fit parte lapis, frigora parte negat.
sollers lusit hiems, imperfectoque rigore
nobilior vivis gemma tumescit aquis.

A piece of ice retains signs of its one-time nature
partly becoming stone, partly rejecting the cold.
Expertly plays the winter, and with rigidity incomplete
the gemstone swells more noble still with living drops of water.


Lymphae, quae tegitis cognato carcere lymphas,
et quae nunc estis quaeque fuistis aquae,
quod vos ingenium iunxit? qua frigoris arte
torpuit et maduit prodigiosa silex?
quis tepor inclusus securas vindicat undas?
interior glacies quo liquefacta Noto?
gemma quibus causis arcano mobilis aestu
vel concreta fuit vel resoluta gelu?

Waters, covering waters in kindred prison-cell,
both you that still are, and you that once were, liquid:
what genius united you? By what trick of freezing
is the marvellous stone both hard and wet?
Which gentle heat, locked in, governs the protected welters?
What southern breeze turned a frosty core liquid again?
What caused the gemstone, moving by some hidden surge,
to be solid or free from frost?


Solibus indomitum glacies Alpina rigorem
sumebat nimio iam pretiosa gelu
nec potuit toto mentiri corpore gemmam,
 sed medio mansit proditor orbe latex.
auctus honor; liquidi crescunt miracula saxi,
   et conservatae plus meruistis aquae.

Alpine ice grasped a firmness indomitable by the sun,
precious already with its excessive frost,
and yet it could not pretend to be a gemstone in its entirety,
for treacherous liquid remained in the middle of its sphere.
Enhanced esteem: the rock’s miraculousness grows as it is liquid,
and you, waters, became more precious still being preserved.


Adspice porrectam splendenti fragmine venam,
qua trahitur limes lucidiore gelu.
hic nullum Borean nec brumam sentit opacus
umor, sed varias itque reditque vias.
non illum constrinxit hiems, non Sirius axis,
aetatis spatium non tenuavit edax.

Behold this vein that extends itself through a shining piece of rock
where a path stretches of even more gleaming frost.
Here the hidden liquid cannot feel the North or the freezing winter,
but it runs, and runs again, on ever changing paths.
No winter impinged on it, nor did the Scorcher’s rise,
nor was it reduced as voracious time goes by.


Clauditur inmunis convexo tegmine rivus,
duratisque vagus fons operitur aquis.
nonne vides, propriis ut spumet gemma lacunis
et refluos ducant pocula viva sinus
udaque pingatur radiis obstantibus Iris
secretas hiemes sollicitante die?
mira silex mirusque latex. et flumina vincit
 et lapides merito, quod fluit et lapis est.

A watercourse is untouchably locked under a vaulted cover,
and a shifting spring is covered by hardened water.
Can’t you see how the gemstone gets frothy in its clefts,
how vessels full of life lead bays that ebb and flow,
how a  moist rainbow is painted by reflecting beams of light
when the daylight challenges the hidden frost?
Wondrous stone and wondrous liquid! It humbles rivers
and rocks, and rightly so, as it flows and still remains a stone.


Dum crystalla puer contingere lubrica gaudet
et gelidum tenero pollice versat onus,
vidit perspicuo deprensas marmore lymphas,
dura quibus solis parcere novit hiems,
et siccum relegens labris sitientibus orbem
inrita quaesitis oscula fixit aquis.

As a boy enjoys touching the gliding crystal
and turns the frosty mass with a tender thumb,
he sees, caught in clear rock, water
which alone a harsh winter chose to spare,
and placing the dry sphere on their thirsty lip
he places kisses on the desired water: in vain.


Marmoreum ne sperne globum: spectacula transit
regia nec Rubro vilior iste mari.
informis glacies, saxum rude, nulla figurae
gratia, sed raras inter habetur opes.

Do not despise this sphere made of rock: it surpasses royal
spectacles and this very thing is not of lesser value than the Red Sea’s pearl.
Shapeless ice, raw rock, no grace in its appearance,
yet one must keep it in the cabinet of curiosities.

Claudian clearly was taken by, and fascinated with, this particular curio.

He playfully (re-)imagines the fluid inclusion as a simultaneous presence of two phases of water: solid and liquid, dry and wet, cold and hot – all rolled into one precious, magical stone, in which what lies underneath the surface is in plain sight, and yet remains out of reach for those who desire to get hold of it.

Claudian, a courtier of Emperor Honorius, is not suspected of political subversion.

And yet, in times of harsh rhetorics and tough political fights, this cycle of poems, read in this sequence, appears in a different light and lends itself without much interpretative force to a political (re-)reading:

(I) The peculiar, rare, and precious gemstone, with its tough surface and its liquid core, formed by outside forces, managed to retain its original nature – and it is its soft, fluid core – the part that managed to preserve life against rigidity – that makes it extra special and precious.

(II) The precious part of the gemstone may be seen as incarcerated in its hard shell, and yet the hard shell may be seen as a mere layer of protection. What miraculous forces were, what miraculous forces continue to be, at play?

(III) Seemingly a contradiction in itself, the precious, rock solid (not quite) gemstone seemingly is betrayed by its gentle, fluid core – a core that seems to betray the object’s very nature. It the very preservation of its soft core, however, that makes the gem so special and extra precious.

(IV) Neither excessive heat nor excessive cold, nor, in fact, condensation, can now harm the water, preserved for eternity. It remains mobile, runs as it pleases, protected from outside harm.

(V) Protected from a damaging, harmful outside, the core remains visible, full of life and radiant, capable of providing the most extraordinary effects to those who witness it, especially when a light shines on it, being a wondrous thing throughout.

(VI) The gemstone’s wondrous nature attracts the curious, even those who may misinterpret what they see. Those may try to fathom the real nature, or try to latch on to it, hoping to quench their thirst – in vain!

(VII) It is the hard shell that provides protection, perhaps not the most pretty sight. And yet its complex, intriguing nature is what makes it so precious, worthy of being put on display for others to behold and to admire.

Will we be able to preserve our nature? Will we be able to protect our (quite literally:) core values with a protective layer that is consistent with what we are made of? Will we continue to be able to let them shine whenever there is a ray of light?

It would be a most precious thing.

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Principiis obsta: resist beginnings!



Ovid, in his elegiac poem Remedia Amoris (‘Remedies for Love’), writes (Ov. rem. 89–94, transl. J. H. Mozley):

Quale sit id, quod amas, celeri circumspice mente,
et tua laesuro subtrahe colla iugo.
Principiis obsta
; sero medicina paratur,

cum mala per longas convaluere moras.
Sed propera, nec te venturas differ in horas;
qui non est hodie, cras minus aptus erit.

Consider in swift thought what kind of thing it is you love, and withdraw your neck from a yoke that may one day gall. Resist beginnings; too late is the medicine prepared, when the disease has gained strength by long delay. Ay, and make haste, nor wait on the coming hours; he who is not ready to-day will be less so to-morrow.

We have been warned.

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