Tag Archives: ancient rome

Great Globs of Verbosity

She found this charming, and laughed. She looked so sweet—like the moon emerging from behind a cloud and showing her full face. Before long her words expressed what her wandering fingers were already demonstrating. 
—Petronius, translated by Andrew Brown,
Satyricon (122).

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Considering the fragmentary nature of Satyricon, with its myriad lacunae, absence of a clear narrative, compounded by seemingly jumping into the story mid-stream—it is quite fun to read.

And I think bees are divine little creatures; they puke honey…even though people do say they get it from Jupiter. And if they sting, well, that’s because there’s no sweet without sour (44)

The print I made above was partially inspired by the feast scene at Trimalchio’s in which the endnotes say that “damsons with pomegranate seeds” in the original Latin was “Syrian plums with Punic apple seeds.” In a long round-about way,  having to do with an annoying print I had made of apples, which I hated, and a lovely drawing my daughter had made for me of a pomegranate—the words “punic apple” simply solved all my frustration and  lit a minor fire under me until I ended up with the above.

Quite the astrologer.  And witty with it! We applauded (30).

Of course I am hardly the first to be inspired (however loosely) by Satyricon. After I finished the book I decided to watch Fellini’s Satyricon.  If I did see it in my youth all that was left in my head were still-images, which may have been all I had seen in the first place. But seeing it, perhaps again, I’ll just say—Fellini didn’t become an adjective for nothing. He takes the surreal aspects of the book and just runs with it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he leaves the humor in the dust. The thing that I liked about the book was the youthful view of the hoity toities, those bitchy-shallow-people who one is so immaturely excited to be deigned an invitation  to dinner with, but which turns into a wacky bender that doesn’t end. All the bits and pieces of the book  have a hilarious ridiculously-bad-night-should-have-stayed-home quality to the thing.

115. We heard a strange low noise and a stifled roar, like a wild animal trying to escape, from under the master’s cabin. We followed the sound—and found Eumolpus sitting there, filling a huge piece of parchment with line after line of poetry. so, amazed to see him able to find time to compose poetry with death so close, we dragged him him off, in spite of his vehement protests, and begged him to be a sensible chap. But he flew into a rage at being interrupted.
“Let me finish my piece!” he shouted. “I’m having a bit of trouble with the last lines!”
What a maniac! I grabbed hold of him and Giton to help me drag the petulant poet ashore (103)

The recent 2013 Italian film La Grande Belleza is very much a Satyricon-influenced film, it retains the ridiculous humor but it adds an element of modern angst bemoaning the ultimate emptiness of it all. There is none of that in the original Satyricon, nor does Fellini bother with that sort of moralizing either, but Fellini’s over the top surrealistic film is so heavy in a way…the tedium of these sorts of people is never lifted in the way that Petronius and Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Belleza manage, even when truly awful things are happening.

The sun shines on everyone. The moon, with countless stars in attendance, even shows wild beasts the way to their food. Can anything be considered more beautiful than water? And yet it flows for everybody. So shall love alone be something to be stolen rather than openly prized? (86)

Petronius (if that is who really wrote this vulgar epic tale—by which I mean both senses of the word “vulgar”) captures a swirling world, that doesn’t seem that different from some of the circles people race about in this day and age. That is the truly remarkable thing—very little changes.

*Title from page 3: “It’s great globs of verbosity, smeared with honey: every word, every deed sprinkled with poppy and sesame seeds.”

We Of The Unpleasant Curiosity

 He was so much in love that he was unable to tear himself away from her, but since we hear that she was in love with him too, perhaps this was also a factor. (270)  – Plutarch, Roman Lives (Pompey)

IMG_0395I tried mightily to understand that sentence. Without success. It seems to me that Plutarch, as a mere afterthought or maybe it was  an act of condescension, suddenly decided  that perhaps it does make a difference to a man if the woman he loves loves him back. How gracious. Still, he leaves room- he can only commit himself to say “perhaps this was also a factor.” Well, don’t go out on a limb there, Man! Plutarch is never at ease discussing matters of the heart. How annoying it must have been for him to have had to acknowledge the relentless ubiquity of romantic subplots, or heaven forbid, plots!  His disapproval of Pompey’s overdeveloped interest in love is clear well before this quote appears, but it’s just such a bizarre thing to say. It makes me wonder a few things about Plutarch rather than question what I take to be a perfectly sensible and worthy interest for any man or woman to have. Between Pompey and Caesar (where I will be leaving the Noble Lives) there are more than the usual references to the various women in their lives, despite Plutarch’s efforts to downplay such frivolity, these men (more so, Pompey) were very much lovers as well as warriors.

Within the first few pages Plutarch relates a bit about the courtesan Flora. I was immediately put on guard as I love the account Lucretius gives of their famed affair, and I am sorry to say Plutarch rather bungles it. He dryly describes their love and some gossip surrounding it, but important details are conflicting (who left bite marks on whom?). And more importantly, the story is bled of all passion and fun. Plutarch would rather look for some reasonable explanation of Pompey’s seemingly busy and overwhelmingly satisfying love life. Speaking of one of the early wives (Caesar’s daughter Julia):

In all likelihood the love she bore her husband was inspired by his self restraint, since he never had any extra-marital affairs (270).

Yes, because there is no other reason why a woman might love a man. Geesh, Plutarch,  a little therapy might be in order. What kind of relationships did Plutarch have that led him to believe that that is the most a woman should aspire to or be inspired by? Given his opinion of women, I suppose he had very little hope of experiencing what came so easily to the charming Pompey.  When Pompey marries Cornelia, Plutarch allows that she is beautiful, talented and intelligent but then stupidly adds:

She also combined these qualities with a character that was free from the unpleasant curiosity which these intellectual interests tend to inflict on young women (273).

Hrmph. Now I’m starting to get irritated. But maybe that’s my problem. I too have been inflicted with unpleasant curiosity, and with no Pompey of my own to sooth my nerves I haven’t the verve to sustain the indulgent relativity that reading Plutarch has required of me.

*Oxford World’s Classics, Plutarch, Roman Lives. Translated by Robin Waterfield

Plutarch Part One: Lives, Noble or Not
Plutarch Part Two: Argue As You Please
Plutarch Part Three: An Accord Sown

Argue as You Please

No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it; by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion required.
-Plutarch (on Archimedes) Everybody’s Plutarch (322)

IMG_0831I find myself talking to Plutarch. I have a few questions for the man. I know he  worked very hard to make an academic study of the “nobel lives” of various Greek and Roman men. That would be question number one. Plutarch, come on, it wouldn’t have killed you to mention a woman or two. And no, I won’t give you credit for your one page on Aspasia (loved by the great and noble Pericles). We already heard tell from my drinking buddy Herodotus about her fabulousness. Well, alright, I’ll give maybe a partial credit, as it’s a sunny day, the sky is brilliant blue, and why not?  Aspasia’s ‘ill repute’ as a ‘Madame,’ is mentioned in a single sentence.  Her charm and status as a woman who taught great men the art of speaking, including “Socrates himself [who] would sometimes go to visit her, and some of his acquaintances with him; and those who frequented her company would carry their wives with them to listen to her” (180) in two more. But Plutarch flies through Pericles’ first marriage, (which ends by mutual consent) with such speed that we’ve hardly digested this rather reasonable and progressive version of divorce by irreconcilable indifference when he is finishing off the paragraph with a hilariously staid description of the passion between Pericles and Aspasia.

And he loved her with wonderful affection; every day, both as he went out and as he came in from the market-place, he saluted and kissed her. (180)

Well, it’s not much, but it’s all he gives, so there you have it-  hello and goodbye with a kiss. What are we to think by this account? Perhaps it was so very common for women of this day to be regarded with such respect for their intellect and allure that a longer mention would have seemed unseemly. But somehow, I doubt it.

The chapter on Marcellus seemed to me to be as much about Archimedes as it was about Marcellus. And that leads me to my second question. I find a blatant bias towards the Greeks in these writings. If anyone out there is reading Plutarch’s Lives then chances are good that you, like I, are reading an abridged version. But the original format was to take a Greek life and then a Roman life and compare the two. Most of what I have read thus far has been about the martial prowess of the Romans compared to the martial (of course- that’s pretty much how the “Nobles” get the title) but also, mental and moral acumen of the Greeks. In fact Plutarch openly questions Marcus Cato’s “nobel-ness.” After  spending far more time discussing Cato’s penny-pinching austerity mode of living than Aspasia’s “make love not war” modus operandi, he unusually inserts his own opinion into the matter by questioning Cato’s treatment, for one, of aging servants that have out-lived their usefulness and are cast out into the world in order to preserve Cato’s own bottom line and warped sense of economy.

Whether these acts are to be ascribed to the greatness or pettiness of spirit, let every one argue as they please (357).

And that is the fun of Plutarch. His histories are slightly more personalized and it is really his personality that keeps me interested in all the rest. And I love a good argument, as long as (and perhaps if Plutarch had told us more I could know if Aspasia would agree with me) no one gets hurt.

Everybody’s Plutarch arranged and edited by Raymond T. Bond, Drydan’s translation.

Plutarch part one: Lives: Noble or Not
Plutarch part three: An Accord Sown

Lives (Noble, or Not)

This narrative […] is suspected by some, because of its dramatic and fictitious appearance; but it would not wholly be disbelieved, if men would remember what a poet fortune sometimes shows herself
-Plutarch, Everybody’s Plutarch (21) Romulus

IMG_0816I am beginning  a potentially long term relationship with Plutarch, even the abridged versions demand commitment. The other day this thought traipsed through my head- “I have to go buy a bra and then I’ll read more Plutarch.” I had to pause a moment to take in the unique ridiculousness of that sentence. In the end I didn’t get a bra- it would only bring me pleasure and there was a small rug for about the same money that would bring my children untold pleasure to sit upon as they served almost two years in a house full of animals that made proximity to the floor an extremely negative experience. But, I digress.

Herodotus says, that, requiring money of those of the island of Andros, [Themistocles] told them that he had brought with him two goddesses, Persuasion and Force; and they answered him that they had also two great goddesses, which prohibited them from giving him any money, Poverty and Impossibility. – (121) Themistocles

Those goddesses sure do get around. Boy, I miss Herodotus, but, Plutarch knows a hilarious retort when he sees one. His reports on the lives of noble Greeks and Romans are fascinating because he spends much more time, then seems to be the norm for the time, discussing the personalities, ideas, and feelings that may have contributed to the “nobleness” of these men. Of course there are no noble women, if you’re a woman and you can get yourself upgraded from harlot to mistress- consider that a boon. Actually, scratch that, if you find yourself a mistress instead of a harlot, thank Salon. Plutarch tells us that Salon is the founding father of what psychologists now refer to as “re-framing.”

[Salon] was afterwards asked if he had left the Athenians the best laws that could be given, he relied, “The best they could receive.” The way which, the moderns say, the Athenians have of softening the badness of a thing, by ingeniously giving it some pretty and innocent appellation. (74) Salon

“Softening the badness.” I quite like that. Salon seemed to be thoroughly  smart and articulate. He was a humanitarian that sought to codify good sense and a quality of life that is, sadly, enviable to this day. And he believed in love. He forbade dowries, and “would not have marriage contracted for gain or an estate, but for pure love, kind affection, and birth of children.” (78)

“Strike if you will, but hear.” (113) Themistocles

An interesting point considering many an argument has been made, (and countered on this blog) claiming “romantic love” is a more recent invention. But I never gloat.

It is shocking (I even feel embarrassed on behalf of these ancient writers and “nobles”) to have such prolific histories told with nary a mention of half the population, but this may be why there is even a quasi legitimate claim on the idea that romantic love is for the weaker sex, domestic life of no interest, daily dealings devoid of true insight. In absentia, the onus for proof, rather than being on common experience and common sense, is boiled down to written proofs- a bar that leaves women and illiterate cultures fighting to prove their worth.

But an internal battle between a bra and rug which is rife with all the dimensions of real life- finances, sexuality, maternal urges, hierarchy of needs, materialism, and utilitarianism are eternal battles wage by all. Okay, fine, maybe just me. Then again, when I told a friend of mine that I was simultaneously contemplating Plutarch and bras, he sent me this quote:

“The brassiere is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”- Plutarch

And this is why Plutarch remains so readable, he does actually touch upon the personal, even if it is with the barest whisper, he takes history out of the strictly martial arena and speaks to what really makes a man noble- his passion and his humanity.

AEsop, who wrote the fables[…] gave [Salon] this advice: “Salon, let your converse with kings be either short or seasonable.” “Nay, rather,” replied Salon, “either short or reasonable.” (86) Salon

*Everybody’s Plutarch Arranged and Edited for the Modern Reader by Raymond T. Bond, Dryden’s translation, revised by Arthur Hugh Clough

Plutarch Part Two: Argue As You Please
Plutarch Part Three: An Accord Sown

Up Bacchus, undiluted.

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I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that ancient Rome was so louche. Latin has a lofty air of the regal, but when it wants to it can be as vulgar, and better, than the rest – at least if the The Poems of Catullus translated by Charles Martin are any indication. Catullus leaves one a little breathless, laughing, with eyebrows raised saying,  Oh my my my. Really!? Why I never! 

43
Greetings to you, girl of the nose not tiny
the feet not pretty, eyes not darkly-shadowed,
stubby fat fingers, mouth forever spraying
language that shows us your lack of refinement,
whore of that bankrupt wastrel from Formiae!
Is it your beauty they praise in the province?
Do they compare you to our Lesbia?
Mindless, this age. And insensitive, really.

Do not piss this poet off – he has a quill and he knows how to use it. One poem after another not only decimates his irritant du jour, but threatens with more poem-bombs to come, if provoked.

Veranius, more dear to me than any
300,000 of my many dear friends,
  – from 9

How touching. Catullus is unashamedly obnoxious (thank god he’s dead or who knows how viciously he might skewer me). But he is also very funny. In poem 50 he relates a wonderful evening spent with his friend playing around writing (according to him, naturally) hilarious erotic verse. He’s so exhausted from the exertion he begs his friend to come to him the next morning to continue their fun:

I beg you to be kind to my petition,
darling, for if you aren’t, if you’re cruel,
them Nemesis will turn on you in outrage.
Don’t rile her up, please – she’s a bitch, that goddess.

Nemesis was the Greek god of retribution the end notes helpfully tells us. The poems are full of whining, lamenting, competitive bitching, lust of both the hetero and homosexual brands – and then there is Lesbia. He does go on about Lesbia. The end notes inform us that Lesbia is actually “the notorious” Clodia Metelli, sister of the populist demagogue no one cares about anymore (Publius Clodius Pulcher). The name “Lesbia” conjures up the esteemed, sensual Greek poet Sappho, we are also reminded. Catullus’ Lesbia, married and apparently fickle, keeps his quill (both) quite engaged.

70
My woman says there is no one whom she’d rather marry
than me, not Jupiter, if he came courting.
That’s what she says – but what a woman says to a passionate
lover
ought to be scribbled on wind, on running water.

Written on running water– that’s quite nice. Never the less, I don’t think I can muster up much sympathy for our debauched meany, Catullus. Even if it would take “as many sandgrains in the desert” of kisses from Lesbia to “sate your mad Catullus!” his love of loves. He’ll be just fine keeping busy with the whores and fellows:

32
I beg of you, my sweet, my Ipsilla,
my darling, my sophisticated beauty,
summon me to a midday assignation;
and, if your willing, do me one big favor:
don’t let another client shoot the door bolt,
and don’t decide to suddenly go cruising,
but stay home & get yourself all ready
for nine – yes, nine – successive copulations!
Honestly, if you want it, give the order:
I’ve eaten, and I’m sated, supinated!
My prick is poking through my cloak & tunic.

*Title from poem 27

Eros: Injured

I spent the day visiting Smith College. They have one of my father’s paintings in their collection, so I was curious, as I was there anyway, to see if the museum had it on display. They did not. But it is a lovely museum all the same.

I was transfixed by the ancient Greek and Roman works, perhaps because of my ongoing Herodotus reading. I was just about to declare the black figure on red the most sublime pottery ever created when I came across a wine goblet of epic proportions that was red figure. Kylix c. 520 B.C.E.

It was stupendous- that’s beautiful, I thought to myself when I saw it, as a wine cup cum bowl it was illustrated on the back in celebration of Bacchus.  On the front, along with a discus thrower,  there were  letters that spelled  kalos, (apparently backwards) meaning- “beautiful.” Just so. Seriously – they knew what they were doing.

Then I came across the early imperial Roman figure, Winged Torso of Eros from the first century C.E.

No arms, no head, no penis, no wings, and yet…and yet. The brutalized Eros is as beautiful as ever.

You hurt me. I was thinking about that sentence on my way home, and it occurred to me that it lacks a tense. If I said you love me it would be clear. If I said you loved me, equally- we understand the implication. But there is no distinction with the word hurt.

With love, one can create a ray or line segment to suggest duration,  inception or completion. But with hurt, there is none. It is a line, pure and simple, no beginning and no end-  you hurt me.  It is the atmosphere, the air one breathes.

Eros:  still beautiful, but wounded. A hurt that simple informs and stains everything else. Eros absorbs the blow- he tries. He tries.