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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Facts vs. alternative facts (formerly known as ‘bull$#!^’): an ancient poem


Alternative Fact (artist’s impression)

Phaedrus, Rome’s fabulist of the first century A. D., wrote a remarkable piece called Poeta de credere et non credere, ‘The poet’s judgement with respect to believing and not believing’ (Phaedr. 3.10).

This is the rather delightful 1761 translation of one Mr. Hoadley:

‘Tis equally dangerous to believe too much, or not to believe at all. I will lay before you a few words, an example of either case. Hippolytus dy’d, because so much credit was given to his step-mother. Troy was laid in ashes, because no regard was had to the predictions of Cassandra. We ought therefore to examine strictly into the truth of the case, that no false impressions may be able to blind or distort our judgment. But not to weaken the truth of this maxim by referring only to a fabulous antiquity, I will relate a tragical adventure within my own memory.

A certain husband who was perfectly fond of his wife, and was now preparing to put the manly gown on his son, was taken aside privately by his freed-man, who had hopes of being appointed his next heir; and who making a thousand lies about his son, and still more concerning in the baseness of his chaste wife, at length added what he knew would sink deepest in the mind of a fond husband, that a galant made her frequent visits, and that the honour of his house was stain’d by an infamous commerce. The husband transported with rage at the imaginary guilt of his wife, pretended a journey to his country seat, but privately staid in town. When night was a little advanced, he rushes suddenly into the house, and makes directly to his wife’s apartment, in which she had order’d her son to lie, that she might have a stricter eye over his ripening years. While the servants are hunting for a light, and the whole family run together in the utmost confusion, the unhappy father, unable to restrain the violence of his mad raging passion flies to the bed-side, and feels with his hand in the dark. Finding a man’s head, as he knew by its being shaved, he plunges his sword in his breast; regarding nothing, if he can but gratify his revenge. However soon as light was brought, seeing on the one side his son, weltring in blood, and on the other his chaste wife a-bed in her own apartment, who fast lock’d up in her first sleep, had heard nothing of the noise; he revenged the rash outrage immediately upon himself, and fell upon the point of that sword which a too easy belief had provoked him to draw.

The woman was immediately indicted by the publick informers, and dragg’d to Rome to appear before the bench of the hundred. Malicious suspicions bear hard upon her innocence, because she was become sole mistress of her husband’s estate. Her counsel stand firm in her defence, and boldly plead the cause of oppress’d innocence. The judges upon this apply to the Emperor Augustus, begging that he would assist them in the honest discharge of their oath; because such was the intricacy of the charge, as to embarrass them extremely. The Emperor, after having dispell’d the clouds raised by calumny, and, by nicely balancing the evidence, came to a sure knowledge of the truth, gave judgment in these terms. “Let the freed-man, who was the cause of all the mischief, suffer punishment: As to the unhappy lady, who has at once lost a son and a husband, I think her case more deserving pity than censure. For had the jealous father of the family, search’d with care into the crimes his wife was accused of, and sifted this abominable plot to the bottom, he would not have overthrown and sunk his family by so fatal a crime.”

Never therefore despise an information, but be not too forward to believe every thing you hear: For it often happens, that they are in fault whom you are farthest from suspecting, and that the most innocent are sometimes unjustly accused.

This story may likewise be a warning to the more simple, that they form not their judgment upon the opinion of another. For the different aims of ambition that rule the heart of man, are a cause of his being often swayed by favour or dislike. He only is well known to you, whom you judge of by a personal acquaintance.

I have enlarged more than usual in telling of this story, because some, I understand, have taken offence at my too great brevity.

Phaedrus seems to be more relevant than ever these days.

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When Harmony Disintegrates

You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family, the saying goes. And it made me wonder: considering that Roman literature is full of stories about family relations, how much do we really know about family life in ancient Rome that goes beyond narratives involving the infamous figure of the all powerful head of the Roman family, the pater familias?

How much do we know about the Roman family that goes beyond the key points of the human life-cycle: childbirth, adoption, marriage, and death (including inheritance)?

How much do we know that goes beyond broad-brush comments on education and duality of the bloodline (gens) vs. that of the extended household (familia, involving the slaves)?

How much do we know about families that were not at the top or anywhere near the top of the society (for a fresh, comprehensive take on the latter, focusing on Seneca, one-time quasi-Emperor of Rome, see here), but part of the lower strata of society – about the realities of family life for slaves and freedmen?

Susan Dixon, in her book The Roman Family (see here for a review), has been very cautious in using the evidence that comes from Roman epitaphs (and rightly so).

Every now and then one encounters texts that seem to say so much more about a given topic than others. One of those texts is the following (now lost) inscription from Salona/Solin in Dalmatia (Croatia) (CIL III 2609 (cf. p. 1032, 1037, 1635) = III 2964 = III 9418 = III 13895 = CLE 1141):

L(uci) Pomponi Pietatis ver(nae)
b(ene) m(erenti).
Pieris hoc tumulo tegitur de matre Venusta
sexto nata loco quae fuit a reliquis.
nondum viginti iuvenis compleverat annos,
quoi quoque virginitas nuper adempta fuit,
grataque florebat cunctis mortalibus aetas,
quam Fors ad superos noluit esse diu.
non pudor huic aberat, pietas non grata parenti,
non amor in fratres eius avarus erat,
cara fuit mater, fuerant caraeque sorores,
et pia coniugio grataque semper erat,
invita Pieridi cum venit letifer(a) hora,
qua cubuit molli languida saepe toro.
hanc Atropos rapuit Lachesisq(ue) et tertia Clotho:
infelix mater tollit ad astra manus
incusatque deos, incusat denique Parcas
quae vitam pensant quaeque futura canunt.
implerunt fratres magnis mugitibus auras,
et cuncti flebant, nec minus ante rogum.
haec fuit at tumulum miserae vox ultima matris,
ossa simul vidit tabida Pieridis:
‘hanc humus excepit, leviter precor illa prematq(ue)
infantem ex utero quae quoque sustinuit’.
coniunx Pieridi supremum munus amatae
hunc titulum scripsit pro pietate sua.

(1-4) Vitalis (had this made) for Pieris, homeborn slave of Lucius Pomponius Pietas, who deserved it well.

(5-10) Pieris is covered by this grave, who was born of Venusta, her mother, sixth to those left behind. A youth, she had not yet completed twenty years of age, who only just had her virginity taken away from her, and her delightful age flourished among all mortals, which Fate no longer desired to exist in the world above.

(11-16) She was not lacking in bashfulness, nor in dutifulness, delightful to her parent, nor was her love towards her brothers ever covetous, the mother was dear (to her), dear were her sisters, and towards her union in marriage she was always dutiful and full of delight, as the spiteful, death-bringing hour approached Pieris, when she slept, as often, exhausted, on a soft blanket.

(17) Atropos snatched her away, Lachesis, too, and Clotho, three.

(18–22) Her ill-fated mother raises her hands to the stars and scolds the gods, scolds even the Parcae who attribute lifetime and who prophesy the future. Her brothers fill the sky with many a groan, and everyone cries, hardly less so by the pyre.

(23–26) These were her mother’s final words by the grave (and at the same time she saw the dissolving bones of Pieris!): ‘Earth receives her, and embraces her lightly (I pray) who, too, gave birth to her as a child from its lap.’

(27–28) The husband wrote this inscription for Pieris, a final gift for his beloved, as an expression of their devotion.

Composed by a man named Vitalis, this inscription celebrates his short-lived wife Pieris (‘Muse’; he calls himself coniunx, husband, in relation to her).

Pieris was a homeborn slave (verna) to one Lucius Pomponius Pietas, born of a mother called Venusta (‘Charming’). She was (at least) the sixth child of Venusta, with a number of older brothers and sisters. No father is named or even alluded to – it is entirely possible, however, that it was one of the freeborn members of Pomponius Pietas’ household (including this very man himself): we cannot know.

The inscription began with four lines of a prose introduction. After that, from line 5 onwards, it displayed a poem, some 24 lines long, consisting of twelve elegiac distichs.

The poem’s first half (lines 5–16) is carefully planned – it comprises two segments of six lines (i. e. three distichs) each. The first segment (5–10) introduces the deceased, her mother and siblings, and her (relatively) young age at the time of death – she was only nineteen when she died, and thus only just grown out of maidenhood (and lost her virginity to her husband, Vitalis, who himself was of lowly origin, as the name suggests).

The second segment (11–16), ending in a reference to welcome breaks from a hard working life, is nothing but remarkable: it describes Pieris’ relationship with her family – her mother, her brothers, and her sisters. She is described as bashful (pudor) and dutiful (pietas; incidentally, this is also the name of her master!), full of affection for her mother (cara) – and the same goes for her sisters (carae). Her relationship to her brothers, in turn, is described as non amor … avarus erat, a love that was not covetous, implying, of course, that the brothers had more of which to be envious and jealous than the sisters did.

Pieris’ relationship with her husband is described as pius, with a sense of duty and love, and grata, delightful, terms that almost verbatim invoke the cordial, close relationship that Pieris had with her mother.

All of this – idealised, no doubt, but full of affection and an obvious implication that such particularly close, affectionate relationships between siblings, especially between boys and girls, were rare – is destroyed by spiteful, hateful (invita, or possibly invida, which has been suggested as an alternative reading) death which descended upon Pieris in a moment of utter exhaustion (yet in a cuddly place).

Right here, in the very middle of the poem (line 17, the opening of the second set of six distichs), a second, rivalling group of sisters is introduced – antiquity’s infamous Sisters of No Mercy: the Fates.

This second half of the poem, one might argue at first glance, again consists of two segments of six lines each, introducing the Fates, those cruel siblings who act in relentless harmony, and their unjust decision to snatch away Pieris as its central turning point. And yet, when looking closer, the harmony of the composition has begun to crumble, to disintegrate, just as the life (and the body) of Pieris has begun to decay.

Line 17 stands alone, isolated – a hexameter in a distich, to which even the pentameter does not seem to be able to respond. The subsequent pentameter (18) introduces the mother’s lament, then follows her accusation of the Fates, her mourning, in which she is joined by the brothers (19–22) (the sisters remain without mention now).

Whereas the third block of six lines was divided as 1+5, the fourth and final segment is divided into 4+2 lines – a moving record of the mother’s final words by the pyre (with a gory image of disintegration of the human body that the mother has to face: ossa simul vidit tabida Pieridis, ‘and at the same time she saw the dissolving bones of Pieris’.

All of this is then concluded by the husband’s final farewell.

To my mind, this poem is a little masterpiece of composition, reflecting order and disarray, harmony and disintegration in its composition, harbouring the relentless sisters that are the Fates in its very middle, as a stark contrast to the unusual, yet positive, life-affirming family relationship that filled the poem’s first half just as much as it (allegedly) filled Pieris’ life.

In doing so, the poem, while not necessarily evidence for actual family life and sibling relationships, paints a powerful ideal of what these ought to have been like – even under most difficult circumstances, at the bottom (or near the bottom) of Rome’s social scale.

You can’t choose family.

But sometimes you do get rather lucky.

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Creative Processes

In 2015, my colleague Dr Rachel Mairs and I organised an international workshop that we called ‘Materialising Poetry‘. I have very fond memories of the day, and the theme that we got to discuss with our colleagues and students has been on my mind for a long time.

One contribution that particularly resonated with me was that of my colleague Prof. Peter Robinson – a rare insight (rare to me, anyway) into the creative processes that make poetry materialise from the perspective of a creative poet.

I don’t consider myself a particularly creative (or even remotely inspired) person. I may have a certain talent to appreciate art and its aesthetics; but I don’t seem to have a natural gift to create art – be it verbal, musical, or otherwise creative.

Peter gave us the opportunity to re-live, and thus to comprehend, how he crafted a little poem called Sein und Zeit (it is discussed here). I was particularly struck by the reproduction of Peter’s original composition (the thing that scholars call autographon):


Peter Robinson: Sein und Zeit. – Image source: http://www.praccrit.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Picture1-643×1024.png.

Very much in the way in which one may witness a painter or a sculptor in the process of applying touch after touch to a complex piece of art, here – I thought – one gets an immediate sense of the creative processes that resulted in something that, in the end, looks perfectly polished and as though it was always meant to be in its final form.

When it comes to the Roman world and my professional interest in the poetry of the Romans, this is precisely what I am missing – I get to see the results (often in a copy of a copy of a copy), but I hardly ever get to appreciate the process.

Would it not be amazing to get an idea of how ancient poets worked?

Sometimes there are flippant remarks that give an idea of a poet’s ethos and attitude, but these are not a glimpse into their workshop.

Ovid, for example, famously claimed that, whatever he said, automatically came forth in verse form. Vergil, in turn, is reported to have drawn on the peculiar idea that existed in the ancient world that bears would give birth to shapeless lumps rather than fully-formed cubs – lumps which they subsequently licked into shape: just like that, an ancient biography of Vergil claims, the great poet wrote his poetry.

But is that really how it worked for them?

More recently, I was struck by two passages that describe creative processes almost in passing – passages that seem to be a lot closer to the reality of creative writing nowadays (and, quite possibly, to the way poetry came about in the ancient world as well, at least in times in which writing was the preferred modus operandi).

The first piece that caught my attention is from Tacitus’ treatise Dialogus de oratoribus. Here, one of the interlocutors, Curiatius Maternus, is introduced as a poet who writes tragedies on Greek and Roman subject matters, with a certain (dangerous) gift to produce dramatic pieces that are potentially relevant and even dangerous within the political framework of his own time.

When asked if he wanted to reconsider some more problematic bits parts of his recently produced piece Cato, Maternus says (Tac. dial. 3.3, transl. W. Peterson/M. Winterbottom):

Tum ille: “Leges tu quid Maternus sibi debuerit, et adgnosces quae audisti. Quod si qua omisit Cato, sequenti recitatione Thyestes dicet; hanc enim tragoediam disposui iam et intra me ipse formavi. Atque ideo maturare libri huius editionem festino, ut dimissa priore cura novae cogitationi toto pectore incumbam.”

To this he rejoined, “The reading of it will show you what Maternus considered his duty to himself: you will find it just as you heard it read. Yes, and if ‘Cato’ has left anything unsaid, at my next reading it shall be supplied in my ‘Thyestes’; for so I call the tragedy which I have already planned and of which I have the outline in my head. It is just because I want to get the first play off my hands and to throw myself whole-heartedly into my new theme that I am hurrying to get this work ready for publication.”

Here, Tacitus has his Maternus describe the creative planning process of a substantial piece of poetry – an entire drama, in fact – with the remarkable words disposui iam et intra me ipse formavi, I have it already arranged and given it its shape (forma!) inside of me. (The visual, tangible, material aspect of poetry should not ever be underestimated, I think – as well as its potential for transformation(s).)

The second passage that seemed remarkable comes from Suetonius’ Life of Nero, in which the author reports what he discovered with regard to the infamous emperor’s poetic production (ch. 52, transl. J. C. Rolfe):

Liberalis disciplinas omnis fere puer attigit. Sed a philosophia eum mater avertit monens imperaturo contrariam esse; a cognitione veterum oratorum Seneca praeceptor, quo diutius in admiratione sui detineret. Itaque ad poeticam pronus carmina libenter ac sine labore composuit nec, ut quidam putant, aliena pro suis edidit. Venere in manus meas pugillares libellique cum quibusdam notissimis versibus ipsius chirographo scriptis, ut facile appareret non tralatos aut dictante aliquo exceptos, sed plane quasi a cogitante atque generante exaratos; ita multa et deleta et inducta et superscripta inerant. Habuit et pingendi fingendique non mediocre studium.

When a boy he took up almost all the liberal arts; but his mother turned him from philosophy, warning him that it was a drawback to one who was going to rule, while Seneca kept him from reading the early orators, to make his admiration for his teacher endure the longer. Turning therefore to poetry, he wrote verses with eagerness and without labour, and did not, as some think, publish the work of others as his own. I have had in my possession note-books and papers with some well-known verses of his, written with his own hand and in such wise that it was perfectly evident that they were not copied or taken down from dictation, but worked out exactly as one writes when thinking and creating; so many instances were there of words erased or struck through and written above the lines. He likewise had no slight interest in painting and sculpture.

Little of Nero’s poetic production survived, and what did survive, does indeed reveal a certain talent.


Correction of a word in a poem from Pompeii. – Image source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder/$CIL_04_05092.jpg.

More importantly, however, the passage seems to show that in the Roman world creative processes in the medium of language – poetry and the production of poetry – were not necessarily altogether different from how they tend to be now.

The general absence of evidence – i. e. author’s original copies and notebooks that would allow us to appreciate the way in which they composed their works – is not evidence for absence.

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Roman poetry is when…

My favourite definition of poetry goes like this:

Poetry is when every line begins with a capital letter and does not reach the right margin of the page.

I like this definition so much, because, in its focus on two aspects of poems’ formal presentation, it is infuriatingly oblivious of what one might normally regard as essential to poetry: artifice, sound, and meaning beyond mere words and syntactical constraints. (I talk about this here in some detail.)

When it comes to ancient Roman (and Greek) poetry, an award of the honorific label ‘poetry’ is commonly made on a similarly infuriating basis: if a sequence of words is arranged, with absolute precision, according to a pre-defined pattern of long and short syllables (or, very rarely and much later, accentuated and unaccentuated syllables), then it qualifies as poetry.

If this doesn’t apply, Classicists have three recourses open to them:

  1. they may call the very same sequence of words ‘prose’ (assuming that rhythmisation was never intended in the first place), or ‘rhythmical prose’ (if feeling generous);
  2. they may call it ‘corrupt’ (assuming that a work of perfection has been spoiled by a manuscript tradition – giving the textual critic permission to interfere with the manuscript transmission without any consideration of the issue as to whether or not such interference may, in fact, destroy the original wording of a poem), or
  3. they insult the writer as ‘poetaster’ or some such (assuming that rhythmisation was mandatory and only an incompetent idiot would be unable to live up to such a standard – exceptions are only made for Homer and Vergil, respectively, who may be excused for the odd line that is too long, too short, or otherwise too freely crafted).

This is in keeping with what ancient grammarians teach, and any violation of these standard operating procedures is very much frowned upon.

An ancient classical poet writing anything any less than perfect? Unthinkable, not even for an effect – suggesting otherwise is pretty much the Classical scholar’s counterpart to committing an act of blasphemy.

Studying the Latin verse inscriptions, rhythmical imperfections are not the exception to me. They are a constant feature of this type of Latin poetry – the common people’s poetry as opposed to the verbal art of Rome’s urban elite and aristocracy.

Previous generations of scholars have carefully listed the metrical ‘violations’ of such poems, not rarely attaching their scholarly scoldings of the misellus poetaster who was clearly too stupid and too ill-educated to avoid them.

But are we actually right to think that flawless rhythmisation, and rhythmisation only, is what made ancient poetry? The more I study the Latin verse inscriptions, the more I doubt it – formal criteria may be useful, but on their own they smack of artificiality rather than profound appreciation of the vastness of human artistic desire.

The problem is, of course, as already suggested, that our own concept of what makes ancient poetry poetry is derived from the teachings of ancient grammarians and metricians – and who, if not those specialists, our professional predecessors, should know best?

Recently, however, (I think) I found some corroboration for my suspicion that we are on the wrong track with our approach to what ought to qualify as poetry in Cicero’s speech Pro Archia, a speech full of insights into the production of art in first century B. C. Rome.

In section 25 of this speech, Cicero reports that –

quem nos in contione vidimus, cum ei libellum malus poeta de populo subiecisset, quod epigramma in eum fecisset tantummodo alternis versibus longiusculis, statim ex iis rebus, quas tum vendebat, iubere ei praemium tribui sub ea condicione, ne quid postea scriberet. Qui sedulitatem mali poetae duxerit aliquo tamen praemio dignam, huius ingenium et virtutem in scribendo et copiam non expetisset?

We saw him (Lucius Sulla) in a public gathering – when some bad poet from the crowd handed him a script, as he had produced an epigram on the subject matter of him alone, with every other line rather long – commanding that the man at once be given a reward payable from the items that he flogged at the time on the condition that he should never write again. He thought that the industry of a bad poet was worthy of some reward nonetheless: the very same man should not have sought the genius, literary prowess, and abundance of my client?

There has been some debate over the alignment of tantummodo (‘only (just)’) – I take it to mean that the subject of the epigramma was Sulla alone (most scholars have taken it as a modifier of longiusculis, ‘rather long’, which does not make any sense). There has also been some discussion as to whether alterni uersus should specifically refer to the metrical form of the ‘elegiac distich‘, in a technical sense, which is possible (but not a given).

What I find a lot more interesting is the description itself: there is a nameless poet (albeit not a very good one, according to Cicero – one must doubt, of course, that he ever actually saw the epigram in question!), and this poet produces a little piece in honour of Sulla – offering it to him as a gift.

All that remains of the poem is a description of its shape: it was written in alterni uersus, pairs of lines (i. e. distichs, whether they were elegiacs or not), in a format in which every other line was longiusculus, ‘rather long’, without conforming to any format that was regarded as flawless.

Cicero calls the author a malus poeta, a bad poet, twice. But – and this is what is important to me – he still calls him a poet, and he calls his piece an epigramma, describing its shape. What is more, before making this episode relevant to the case at hand, Cicero emphasises that Sulla appreciated the sedulitas, the effort and industry, of the malus poeta – and even rewarded it (if from presumably rather ill-gotten gains).

Sulla offered his reward on condition of a poetic ceasefire: no more bad poetry in honour of Rome’s powerful aristocrat!

What we may take away from it is that, certainly in Rome during the first century B. C., poetry was something that was produced with artistic conviction, sedulitas, first,  recognised by its shape(s) second (alterni versus longiusculi), assessed by the impact on its audience third (epigramma in eum … tantummodo), and measured by its technical perfection last.

Cicero’s client is better than the malus poeta not in terms of meter and rhythm. He excels with regard to his ingenium et virtutem in scribendo et copiam, his genius, literary prowess, and abundance.

May we still call poets ‘bad poets’?

We certainly may.

But it shouldn’t be a judgement based on technical perfection alone, just as one would not base one’s judgement of the qualities of a chef on the formal presentation of the food alone.

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New Year’s Death

For at least thirty-nine people their desire to celebrate the new year ended fatally last night in Istanbul when a hitherto unidentified perpetrator marched into a nightclub and gunned down his victims. Another 69 or so have been injured.

In the face of such violence, such heinousness, such utter contempt for human life, words regularly fail me.

What is there to say?

What can make things better?

For the dead, for those who are left behind, for anyone else?

Considering the symbolic date of January 1st, the date that symbolises closure as well as new beginnings, I was reminded of a poem, inscribed on a marble tablet (undated) discovered in the city of Rome, from the cemetery of St. Agnes at the Via Nomentana (CIL VI 14578 (cf. p. 3515) = CIL VI 34083 = CLE 502).


Ianus: the Roman god of beginnings, endings, and passages. – Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a9/Janus1.JPG/1024px-Janus1.JPG.

The inscription reads as follows:

Dis M(anibus)
L(uci) Catelli Flori.
Clodia Africana
[fil]io piissimo.
[hospes] ad hoc tumulum dum perlegis
[acta resi]iste, aspice quam indi-
[gne sit data] vita mihi. XII ego
[annoru]m vixi dulcissimae matri,
[cui liqui fletu]m fato cito raptus iniquo,
[cum Ianua]rias celebrarem forte Kal(endas),
[dum ducunt m]ater et germana soror
[veneratum in]ter festa sacri templa
[et comi]tantur amici.
[Manes infer]ni, si quid mea carmina
[possunt, parcite quaeso meis, or]o precorque rogo
[mater et ad s]uperos vivas mul-
[tosque per annos, s]is felix s[emper]
– – – – – –

To the Spirits of the Departed of Lucius Catellus Florus. Clodia Africana (had this made) for her most dutiful son.

Stranger, as by this tomb you read what has happened, pause and behold in how undignified a manner life was given to me. I lived twelve years for my sweetest mother, to whom I left weeping when I was snatched away, quickly, by a fate unjust, as I happened to celebrate the First of January, as my mother and my own sister led (me) to the festive temples of the cult, to worship, accompanied by friends.

Spirits of the Underworld, if my songs have any power, please show my family mercy, I beg, I pray, I ask, and mother, may you live in the world above for many years, may you always be fortunate, . . . . .

Lucius Catellus Florus was not the only unfortunate person for whom death on January 1st was recorded and commemorated in ancient Rome: I discussed a similar case before.

What strikes me about this piece, however, is the way in which death – and a very premature death at that – has forever been linked to, and contrasted with, the celebrations that the deceased’s family and friends were about to enjoy to mark the new year – celebrations that were supposed to be all about joy and hope, family and friends, not about bereavement and mourning.

What strikes me even more, though, is the remarkable resilience of this piece.

Instead of conveying a sense of despair and exasperation, the author of those lines, which are presented as though they were spoken by the deceased himself, makes a strong, unambiguously positive plea.

Using virtually every single Latin request formula available (quaeso, oro, precor, and rogo in the same sentence, addressing those who are left behind and the mother in particular), the authors urges its readers, through the power of song and magic (si quid mea carmina possunt, a famous Vergilian line – I briefly mention it here) must learn to remain positive, to embrace life ad superos, in the world above, for years to come – and always seek good fortune: sis felix semper.

Sis felix semper, may you always be fortunate – this expression extends the traditional Roman new year’s wish, annum novum felicem (‘an auspicious new year’), into eternity.

Hope dies last.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

End-of-Year Magic

India, according to the Natural History of the Elder Pliny, was home to some of the world’s most amazing animals (Plin. nat. 8.76, transl. H. Rackham):

He says that in India there are also oxen with solid hoofs and one horn, and a wild animal, named axis, with the hide of a fawn but with more spots and whiter ones, belonging to the ritual of Father Liber (the Orsaean Indians hunt monkeys that are a bright white all over the body); but that the fiercest animal is the unicorn, which in the rest of the body resembles a horse, but in the head a stag, in the feet an elephant, and in the tail a boar, and has a deep bellow, and a single black horn three feet long projecting from the middle of the forehead. They say that it is impossible to capture this animal alive.

The magic of the fabled, indomitable unicorn (monoceros in Greek, unicornis in Latin – often thought to be a reference to rhinos or antelopes, despite some apparent discrepancies in their appearance as it is described in Graeco-Roman sources) was not lost on the ancients, either.

Aelian reports (On Animals 3.41, transl. A. F. Schofield):

India produces horses with one horn, they say, and the same country fosters asses with a single horn. And from these horns they make drinking-vessels, and if anyone puts a deadly poison in them and a man drinks, the plot will do him no harm. For it seems that the horn both of the horse and of the ass is an antidote to the poison.

Perhaps the single-most remarkable account on unicorns that survives from the ancient world, however, is that of the so-called Physiologus (‘the Naturalist’), a Christian didactic text dating to the mid-to-late Empire. Originally written in Greek, the Physiologus survives in multiple languages through a most peculiar tradition, and it has been hugely influential beyond the ancient world with its description of (partly fabled, partly real) creatures as well as its provision of allegorical exegeses.


© Paris, Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve, ms. 2200, f. 072v. – Image source: http://physiologus.proab.info/version1/?re=508

In its twenty-sixth chapter, the Physiologus reports on the unicorn (here in Latin, following versio B 31-32; my translation):

Physiologus dicit unicornem hanc habere naturam: pusillum animal est, simile haedo, acerrimum nimis, unam cornu habens in medio capite. Et nullus omnino uenator eum capere potest; sed hoc argumento eum capiunt: puellam uirginem ducunt in illum locum ubi moratur, et dimittunt eam in siluam solam; at ille uero, mox ut uiderit eam, salit in sinum uirginis, et complectitur eam, et sic comprehenditur, et exhibetur in palatio regis.

The naturalist says that the unicorn is like this in nature: it is a small animal, like a kid, yet very fierce, with one horn on the middle of its head. And no hunter can capture it; yet there is one way of capturing it: a maiden girl is led to the very place where it dwells, and they send her into the grove alone; and the unicorn, as soon as it sees her, jumps into the maiden’s lap and embraces her, and that how he is captured and can be introduced to the royal palace.

The Physiologus quickly volunteers a Christian interpretation this creature and its appearance (ibid.; transl. Verner/Carmody):

In this way our lord Jesus Christ, the spiritual unicorn, descended into the womb of the virgin, assumed human flesh, was captured by the Jews, and was sentenced to death on the cross; concerning this David said:  and as the beloved son of unicorns [Ps. 28.6]; and yet again in another psalm it is said of him: And my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn [Ps. 91.11]. And Zachariah said: he has raised up a horn of salvation to us, in the house of David, his servant [Luc. 1.69]. And in Deuteronomy Moses blesses the tribe of Joseph: his beauty as of the firstling of a bullock, his horn as the horn of the unicorn [Deut. 33.17].

That he has one horn on his head signifies what the savior said: I and the father are one [John 10.30]. He is said to be shrewd since neither principalities, powers, thrones, nor dominations can comprehend him, nor can hell hold him. He is small because of the humility of his incarnation. He said “Learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart” [Matt. 11.29]. He is so shrewd that that most clever devil cannot comprehend him or find him out, but through the will of the Father alone he came down into the womb of the Virgin Mary for our salvation.”And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” [John 1.14]. The unicorn is like the kid, as is our Savior according to the Apostle: “He was made in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin he condemned sin in the flesh” [Rom. 8.3] This was spoken well of the unicorn.

Even to the staunchest among present-day Christians this late-antique and medieval form of exegesis must appear somewhat … shall we say … inscrutable – but then, who knew that the unicorn was so closely linked to Christmas!

What appeals to me first and foremost, though, is the beautifully romantic idea that an otherwise indomitable, wild, elusive, and magical creature – a creature in many respects similar to a haedus, a baby goat, with its fierce energy and lascivious abandon, a creature that no man can capture –  is attracted to, and altogether submitting to, the purity of a girl.

This year has seen so much misery, so much pain, so much death, so much destruction, so much hatred, so much needless suffering all over the world.

Kid-like abandon, a spirit that cannot be captured, but is ready to yield to innocence, and protective powers against toxicity and dastardliness: those seem like excellent wishes for the festive season and for a better 2017.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

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An innocent lamb used facts as a weapon against post-truth politics. You won’t believe what happened next…

In my previous post, I explored the dynamics and rhetoric behind what has been called ‘post-truth politics’.

The concept still is very much on my mind.

On the one hand, I am not deluded enough to believe that concepts such as truth or falsehood ever genuinely mattered much in politics and power-play.

On the other hand, it would seem as though before there was a certain degree of shame attached to a scenario in which someone was found guilty of telling lies.

There seems to have been a time, not long ago, in which intentional misrepresentation of facts typically were expected to result in personal consequences: confidently spreading falsehoods for one’s political advantage seemed to disqualify from holding a public office, not being its prerequisite.

More recently, however, there appears to be an increasing level of indifference to such matters. It is almost as though the electorate has come to terms with, and settled for, (i) the idea that politicians lie for a living (so why be upset!) and (ii) the observation that when politicians say that they take responsibility for something it is just a meaningless phrase.

In the conclusion of my earlier post I briefly reflected on the potentially rather limited effect of deploying truth against those who purposefully and strategically spread falsehood for their political aims.

But why does this strategy seem to be so infuriatingly inefficient?

The answer to this question may lie in a fable told by the Roman fabulist Phaedrus (Phaedr. 1.1):


Wolf and lamb in a post-truth universe. – Image source here.

Ad rivum eundem lupus et agnus venerant
siti compulsi; superior stabat lupus
longeque inferior agnus. tunc fauce improba
latro incitatus iurgii causam intulit.
‘cur’ inquit ‘turbulentam fecisti mihi
aquam bibenti?’ laniger contra timens:
‘qui possum, quaeso, facere, quod quereris, lupe?
a te decurrit ad meos haustus liquor’.
repulsus ille veritatis viribus:
‘ante hos sex menses male, ait, dixisti mihi’.
respondit agnus: ‘equidem natus non eram’.
‘pater hercle tuus, ille inquit, male dixit mihi’.
atque ita correptum lacerat iniusta nece.
haec propter illos scripta est homines fabula
qui fictis causis innocentes opprimunt.

In the delightful translation of Christopher Smith (from here)

By thirst incited; to the brook
The Wolf and Lamb themselves betook.
The Wolf high up the current drank,
The Lamb far lower down the bank.
Then, bent his ravenous maw to cram,
The Wolf took umbrage at the Lamb.
“How dare you trouble all the flood,
And mingle my good drink with mud?”
“Sir,” says the Lambkin, sore afraid,
“How should I act, as you upbraid?
The thing you mention cannot be,
The stream descends from you to me.”
Abash’d by facts, says he,” I know
‘Tis now exact six months ago
You strove my honest fame to blot”-
“Six months ago, sir, I was not.”
“Then ’twas th’ old ram thy sire,” he cried,
And so he tore him, till he died.
To those this fable I address
Who are determined to oppress,
And trump up any false pretence,
But they will injure innocence.

In Phaedrus’ famous fable, the lamb answers the wolf’s falsehoods and insists on facts and science. All it achieves is to make the wolf come up with even further absurdities. In the end it gets devoured.

What good was it to correct the wolf’s falsehoods?

What the lamb – the very symbol of innocence –  does not see is that the wolf does not actually care about the facts. It’s purpose is to kill the lamb for its own benefit.

The wolf is determined to oppress the innocent.

To that end it will ‘trump (!!) up any false pretence’ (fictis causis in the Latin; but can you believe the serendipity, to find this very phrase in a one-hundred years old translation?).

Post-truth politics isn’t about being stupid or just not getting it right.

Post-truth politics is about a strategy that distracts the lambs’ innocent little souls. It gives them something ultimately meaningless to play with, something in which they may feel superior and smart, blissfully oblivious of the true dangers that are going to kill and devour them.

The lamb’s only hope would have been to run away from this futile discussion and to hide or to gather meaningful support.

It took the wrong decision.

And it paid for it with its life.

Don’t be this lamb.

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Fake News and Post-Truth Politics

There is a widespread, distinct feeling that Western politics has entered a phase of what tends to be called ‘post-truth politics‘.

The term ‘post-truth politics’, often accompanied by references to fake news and disinformation campaigns, looks like a euphemism for ‘shameless lies’ at first; in actual fact, however, these concepts seem to capture a current development in which emotions and perceptions, created, driven, and catered for by carefully planned campaigns, override and invalidate what reason and fact-led analysis can confirm.

Unsurprisingly, demagoguery and populism thrive in this environment – and they do so even more in the powerful echo chambers of present-day social media.

The idea of living in a ‘post-truth’ age, suggesting that a new epoch has dawned, is appealing: successful campaigns such as Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election have instilled an almost post-apocalyptical feeling in many, and politically motivated defamatory attacks against experts (whose expertise somehow seems to be less valid than the alleged gut-feeling of the ‘real people’)  have become a lot more common recently.

But is ‘post-truth politics’ actually a thing – or is it just a convenient way of avoiding the admission of defeat in campaigns in which ‘the other side’ has resorted to a successful strategy to which no meaningful response could be found?

An argument could be made for the latter.

There is a (now) little-read treatise called Strategikos (Στρατηγικός; ‘The General’) by a first-century A. D. author called Onasander (sometimes also reported as Onosander). This work is a most remarkable handbook for anyone who would like to understand more about ancient Roman warfare and tactics (at least from a theoretical angle).

In the Strategikos, Onosander writes (ch. 23, on ‘Announcing favourable news in the midst of battle; even if false it is advantageous’):

Sometimes the general should ride along the lines and call out to his men, if he happens to be on the right wing, “Our left wing is defeating the right wing of the enemy,” or if he is on the left he should say that his right wing is conquering, whether this is true or not, for deceit is necessary when “a great strife has arisen.” For example, when the leader of the enemy is some distance away either on one wing or holding the centre, he should call out, “The general of the enemy has been killed,” or “the king.” or whoever it may be. And one should shout this in such a manner that the enemy also may hear; for his own soldiers, learning that their side is more successful, are encouraged and doubly eager to fight, while the enemy, learning of the misfortunes of their side, lose heart, so that sometimes they start into flight immediately on hearing such a report. In this way it is very often useful to deceive both one’s own army and that of the enemy by false news, good for the former, but bad for the latter.

This sounds very familiar indeed – and it highlights ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth politics’ as what they really are: strategems, designed and spread for a purpose.

The obvious question, therefore, is: how to respond to such a device? Is it even possible to get through to those who are inclined to follow their leader (general or otherwise)? Or is one’s only hope to protect one’s own side as much as possible from contagion – hoping that this might, if one gets lucky, perhaps have an effect on those who have been subjected to disinformation for strategic purposes?

Rumours and common talk are called “the verdict of society” and “the testimony of the public” by one party; to the other, they are “vague, unauthenticated talk, started by malice and developed by credulity, something that can happen to the most innocent of men through the fraud of enemies who spread false tales.”

––– Rome’s first professor of Latin, Quintilian, wrote (Inst. or. 5.3).

Once set in motion disinformation is hard to stop, of course. Vergil famously depicted Fama, ‘Rumour’ as follows (Aeneid 4.173 ff., transl. from here):

At once Rumour runs through Libya’s great cities—Rumour the swiftest of all evils. Speed lends her strength, and she wins vigour as she goes; small at first through fear, soon she mounts up to heaven, and walks the ground with head hidden in the clouds. Mother Earth, provoked to anger against the gods, brought her forth last, they say, as sister to Coeus and Enceladus, swift of foot and fleet of wing, a monster awful and huge, who for the many feathers in her body has as many watchful eyes beneath—wondrous to tell—as many tongues, as many sounding mouths, as many pricked-up ears. By night, midway between heaven and earth, she flies through the gloom, screeching, and droops not her eyes in sweet sleep; by day she sits on guard on high rooftop or lofty turrets, and affrights great cities, clinging to the false and wrong, yet heralding truth. Now exulting in manifold gossip, she filled the nations and sang alike of fact and falsehood, how Aeneas is come, one born of Trojan blood, to whom in marriage fair Dido deigns to join herself; now they while away the winter, all its length, in wanton ease together, heedless of their realms and enthralled by shameless passion. These tales the foul goddess spreads here and there upon the lips of men. Straightway to King Iarbas she bends her course, and with her words fires his spirit and heaps high his wrath.

Ovid, too, offered a powerful description (Metamorphoses 12.39–63, transl. from here):

There is a place at the centre of the World, between the zones of earth, sea, and sky, at the boundary of the three worlds. From here, whatever exists is seen, however far away, and every voice reaches listening ears. Rumour lives there, choosing a house for herself on a high mountain summit, adding innumerable entrances, a thousand openings, and no doors to bar the threshold. It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze. All rustles with noise, echoes voices, and repeats what is heard. There is no peace within: no silence anywhere. Yet there is no clamour, only the subdued murmur of voices, like the waves of the sea, if you hear them far off, or like the sound of distant thunder when Jupiter makes the dark clouds rumble.

Crowds fill the hallways: a fickle populace comes and goes, and, mingling truth randomly with fiction, a thousand rumours wander, and confused words circulate. Of these, some fill idle ears with chatter, others carry tales, and the author adds something new to what is heard. Here is Credulity: here is rash Error, empty Delight, and alarming Fear, sudden Sedition, and Murmurings of doubtful origin. Rumour herself sees everything that happens in the heavens, throughout the ocean, and on land, and inquires about everything on earth.

Or as A. Paul Weber imagined it:

Candid advice on how to manage rumours, ‘fake news’, and whatever one might be inclined to call ‘post-truth’ comes from an anonymous early first-century B. C. rhetorician  (Rhet. Her. 2.12, transl. from here):

We shall speak in favour of rumours by saying that a report is not wont to be created recklessly and without some foundation, and that there was no reason for anybody wholly to invent and fabricate one; and, moreover, if other rumours usually are lies, we shall prove by argument that this one is true. We shall speak against rumours if we first show that many rumours are false, and cite examples of false report; if we say that the rumours were the invention of our enemies or of other men malicious and slanderous by nature; and if we either present some story invented against our adversaries which we declare to be in every mouth, or produce a true report carrying some disgrace to them, and say we yet have no faith in it for the reason that any person at all can produce and spread any disgraceful rumour or fiction about any other person. If, nevertheless, a rumour seems highly plausible, we can destroy its authority by logical argument.

One may find it reassuring that ‘post-truthism’ is not exactly a modern invention, and one may find some relief in the observation that there are means to deal with it.

But what is the appropriate response?

It would seem to be of vital importance to remember two things.

First, ‘fake news’ in political discourse is a strategic device to a (relatively clearly defined) end, whose dangerous potential to create new realities one must not ever underestimate (and which must be addressed strategically rather than with utter bewilderment over others’ inclination to follow reassuring, reinvigorating messages).

Secondly, if one wishes to have any hope to win a battle against falsehoods, one must be both confident that truth can, in fact, be established and be in a situation in which the other side is even remotely ready to listen to what the Rhetor ad Herennium calls ‘logical argument’.

Failing that, all that can be achieved is reaching out to those, and reassuring those, who were disinclined to believe in ‘fake news’ in the first place.

Right now, even that would seem like no altogether insignificant achievement.

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