‘Amatrice is no more,’ or: August 24th, again

Correctly or not, August 24th is the date which is commonly taken as the day on which, in A. D. 79, Mt. Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the city of Pompeii as well as many adjacent settlements.

Yesterday – on August 24th, of all dates! – yet another seismic activity hit the Apennine peninsula, and a devastating, large-scale earthquake destroyed most of the town of Amatrice and its surrounding areas, taking hundreds of lives.

‘The town is no more,’ Amatrice’s mayor said.

Pompeii, too, famously experienced an earthquake – in A. D. 62.

Seneca the Younger reports in his Naturales Quaestiones (Book 6.1.1-3, transl. J. Clarke):

We have just had news, my esteemed Lucilius, that Pompeii, the celebrated city in Campania, has been overwhelmed in an earthquake, which shook all the surrounding districts as well. The city, you know, lies on a beautiful bay, running far back from the open sea, and is surrounded by two converging shores, on the one side that of Surrentum and Stabiae, on the other that of Herculaneum. The disaster happened in winter, a period for which our forefathers used to claim immunity from such dangers. On the 5th of February, in the consulship of Regulus and Virginius, this shock occurred, involving widespread destruction over the whole province of Campania; the district had never been without risk of such a calamity, but had been hitherto exempt from it, having escaped time after time from groundless alarm.

The extent of the disaster may be gathered from a few details. Part of the town of Herculaneum fell; the buildings left standing are very insecure. The colony of Nuceria had painful experience of the shock, but sustained no damage. Naples was just touched by what might have proved a great disaster to it; many private houses suffered, but no public building was destroyed. The villas built on the cliffs everywhere shook, but without damage being done. In addition, they say, a flock of six hundred sheep was destroyed, and statues were split open; some people were driven out of their minds, and wandered about in helpless idiotcy.

Many, especially those with a merely historical interest, tend to stop reading at this point.

Seneca introduced this topic for a reason, however, and his reason was not one of mere historical curiosity (6.1.4-8):

We must seek solace for the anxious and dispel overmastering fear. For what can any one believe quite safe if the world itself is shaken, and its most solid parts totter to their fall? Where, indeed, can our fears have limit if the one thing immovably fixed, which upholds all other things in dependence on it, begins to rock, and the earth lose its chief characteristic, stability? What refuge can our weak bodies find? whither shall anxious ones flee when fear springs from the ground and is drawn up from earth’s foundations? If roofs at any time begin to crack and premonitions of fall are given, there is general panic : all hurry pell-mell out of doors, they abandon their household treasures, and trust for safety to the public street.

But if the earth itself stir up destruction, what refuge or help can we look for? If this solid globe, which upholds and defends us, upon which our cities are built, which has been called by some the world’s foundation, stagger and remove, whither are we to turn? What comfort, not to say help, can you gain when fear has destroyed all way of escape? Where, I say, is there any protection you can trust? what is there that will stand as sure defence either of oneself or of others? An enemy I can drive off from my city wall. The mere difficulties of approach to turrets set on the dizzy heights will stop the march even of great armies. From storm the harbour shelters us; our roofs are able to withstand the whole force of clouds let loose, and the endless deluges of rain. Fire cannot pursue us if we run away from it. Against heaven’s threats in thunder refuges underground and caverns dug out in the depths of the earth are of avail the fire of heaven does not pierce the ground, but is beaten back by the tiniest portion of the soil. In time of plague we may change our place of abode. No species of disaster is without some means of escape. Lightning has never consumed whole nations. A plague-laden sky has drained cities, but has never blotted them out.

But this calamity of earthquake extends beyond all bounds, inevitable, insatiable, the destruction of a whole State. Nor is it only families or households or single cities that it swallows; it overthrows whole nations and regions. At one time it hides them in their ruins, at another consigns them to the deep abyss; it leaves not a wrack behind to witness that what no longer is, once was. The bare soil stretches over the site of the most famous cities, and no trace is left of their former existence. Nor are there wanting those who dread most of all this kind of death, in which they go down alive into the pit, houses and all, and are carried off from the number of the living: as if every form of death did not lead to the one goal.

It is this very final observation – we all must die – that leads Seneca to his next point (6.1.8-9):

Among nature’s righteous decrees this is the chief, that when we reach the end of life we are all on a level. It makes no difference, therefore, to me whether one stone wound me to death or I am crushed beneath a whole mountain; whether the weight of one house come down on me, and I expire beneath the dust of its humble mound, or whether the whole world descend upon my head; whether I yield up this breath in the open light of day or in the vast abyss of the yawning earth; whether I am borne down to those depths all alone or along with a great throng of perishing nations. To me it can make no difference how great is the turmoil that accompanies my death; the thing is everywhere just the same.

What should one do? Can one just run away, to a safer place? Seneca comes up with his own risk assessment and begs to disagree with that view (6.1.10-15):

Wherefore, let us raise high our courage against that disaster, which can neither be shunned nor yet foreseen. Let us cease to listen to the people that have bid adieu to Campania since the time of this disaster, and have removed to other districts, vowing they will never set foot in that quarter again! Who can guarantee them more solid foundations in whatever soil they choose? All the world is subject to the same fate. If it has not yet suffered from earthquake, it may; perchance this spot on which you stand in full security will be rent this night, or even this day before night. How can one tell whether is better the state of the places on which fortune has already spent her force or of those which are upheld meantime, but only for some disaster to come? We do greatly err if we suppose any quarter of the world wholly exempt from this danger. All quarters are subject to the same law. Nature framed nothing to be immovable.

Different things will fall at different times. Just as in large cities, now this house and now that leans over and has to be shored up, so in the world as a whole, now this part contains a flaw, now that. Tyre was once notorious for a disaster of the kind. The province of Asia lost at a single stroke twelve of its cities. Last year calamity overtook Achaia and Macedonia, now the injury has fallen upon Campania, whatever be the nature of that force  which thus assails us. Fate makes a circuit, paying a second visit to places she has long passed over. On some places her attacks are more rare, more frequent on some. Nothing is suffered to be quite exempt from injury.

Not merely we men, whose life is frail and fleeting, but cities too, and the earth’s coasts and shores, yea, the very sea falls under bondage to fate. And in face of this we promise ourselves permanence in the boons fortune bestows! we suppose there will be stability and endurance in happiness, whose fickleness is greatest of all things on earth! While men promise themselves all things in perpetuity, it never enters their thoughts that the very earth on which we stand is not permanent. The flaws of the ground are to be found everywhere; they are not peculiar to Campania or Tyre or Achaia. The earth coheres imperfectly, it suffers breach from many causes; permanent as a whole, it is subject to collapse in its parts.

Subsequently, Seneca discusses (a) the Stoic view that fear of death is futile (we all must die, and it does not matter if our death is spectacular or not) and (b) ancient theories about the causes of earthquakes as related to the composition of the earth and the primordial elements and forces of fire, water, and air, some of them amusing, some of them surprisingly close to what humankind has managed to establish scientifically later on.

Yet, after all scientific discussion, Seneca returns to the matter of fear and post-traumatic stress (6.29.1-2):

Through fear some people have run about as if distracted or mad. For fear, even when in moderation and confined to individuals, shatters the mind’s powers. But when there is public alarm through fall of cities, burying of whole nations, and shaking of earth’s foundations, what wonder that minds in the distraction of suffering and terror should have wandered forth bereft of sense ? It is no easy matter in the midst of overmastering evils not to lose one’s reason. So it is, as a rule, the feeblest souls that reach such a pitch of dread as to become unhinged. No one, indeed, has suffered extreme terror without some loss of sanity; one who is afraid is much like a madman. But some quickly recovering from the alarm regain self-possession. Others it more violently disturbs and reduces to sheer madness. Hence during times of war lunatics are to be met wandering about. On no occasion will one find more instances of raving prophets than when mingled terror and superstition have struck men’s hearts.

It is fear – fear of death in particular – that one should fight.

Seneca’s Stoic advice on how to harness oneself may seem harsh. It may seem unsuitable. It may not be everyone’s preferred course of action. But it is important to note what he is actually trying to do: he is trying to help, focusing on actual people, their traumatic experiences, and their innermost fears. For it is the people who need our help in such terrible situations first and foremost.

Perhaps we all can try and help?

The Italian Red Cross has set up a webpage for donations – you can find it here (the page is in Italian, but it’s really not hard to figure this one out: nome – first name; cognome – surname; nazione – nationality; indirizzo – address; CAP – post code; importo – amount):

Terremoto Centro Italia.

 For other ways to help:


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Control, Fear, and Rage: Ovid on Linguistic Isolation

I moved from Germany to Britain in September 2005. I have made this island my home – I work here, I live here, I have my friends here. I don’t put my beach towel over chairs in the library, I do not wear socks with my sandals. I still can’t bring myself to enjoy real ale, I regret to say, but I try to make up for that by drinking cider instead. In complete denial of my identity as a Berliner, I apologise when someone inconveniences me, and I join queues whenever there is an opportunity. I’ve been working on my English, too, improving it from marks in the C/D range at school to at least a B- now. I live in Reading, a beautifully multicultural community, in which I very much feel at home, for all its faults and oddities.

Yesterday, however, on my way to work – I was on the phone with a German travel agent, talking in German – the following happened.

Already as I was walking and talking, I heard muttering behind me. Two ladies (I’m using this term rather loosely here) were overhearing my conversation and expressing their, shall we say, dissatisfaction with my choice of language – or, as it quickly turned out, my very presence. The following dialogue ensued:

– ‘Better start packing, mate. Go home where you came from.’
– ‘If I go home, I’ll miss work.’
– ‘So you’re taking our jobs too, you fxxxing piece of sh*t.’
– ‘Can you tell a gerund from a gerundive in Latin?’
– ‘What the f*ck, man! What the f*ck!’
– ‘Believe me, I’m not taking your job.’
– ‘Fxxxing immigrants!’
– ‘Fxxxing ignorants!’
– ‘💩💀💣🔪🔫⚔’

Being a white male, I am not your typical recipient of xenophobic outbursts like this, and I was not overly shaken by the incident. I also was fortunate enough to be able to rely on my network of wonderful friends and colleagues offering me support and tea (this IS England after all!). I dread to think how a less resilient person would have been shaken by this, and I am utterly terrified to think that some people, due to their very complexion and appearance, have to endure such abuse on a regular basis.

Parts of the British population are currently drunk on nationalism, as a result of the referendum that appears to have brought us the ‘Brexit’. A staunch European myself, I do have my views on the outcome, but I do respect those who, in good faith, voted for Leave. The unfortunate side effect of the outcome, however, is that those people who were previously relatively silent and invisible with their abhorrent, repulsive, and deeply immoral views on foreigners now feel empowered to voice their opinions very publicly – and even to act on them, in the belief that a majority is, in fact, on their side.


Tasteful Vote Leave campaigning poster. Image source: https://www.thesun.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2899323.main_image.jpg.

I have seen similar waves of nationalism gone sour in my own country, e. g. in the 1990s. It will take a long time and a lot of widespread effort to contain these outbursts and to reintroduce civility. It will require community champions just as much as political will and the strong arm of the law to enforce civil discourse and safety for everyone.

But why this blog?

Well, one of the issues that I have been thinking about for quite some time now – and yesterday was another trigger for me to think about this some more – is the way in which languages, foreign languages, seem to be perceived as threatening by some. I am not talking so much about foreign language anxiety (which prevents some from learning other languages, apparently), but the angst (and the angst-induced rage) that spoken foreign languages seem to evoke and cause in some.

Remarkably, the Roman poet Ovid, in his involuntary Black Sea exile, reflects on this matter. On multiple occasions he comments on his linguistic world being turned upside down – the Latin language, the language of the Roman empire, has little currency in Tomis, and even Greek appears to have changed its nature (Ov. trist. 5.2.63–72):

Iussus ad Euxini deformia litora ueni
aequoris – haec gelido terra sub axe iacet –
nec me tam cruciat numquam sine frigore caelum,
glaebaque canenti semper obusta gelu,
nesciaque est uocis quod barbara lingua Latinae,
Graecaque quod Getico uicta loquella sono est,
quam quod finitimo cinctus premor undique Marte,
uixque breuis tutum murus ab hoste facit.
pax tamen interdum est, pacis fiducia numquam:
sic hic nunc patitur, nunc timet arma locus.

By thy command I have come to the formless shores of the Euxine water – this land lies beneath the frigid pole – nor am I so much tortured by a climate never free from cold and a soil ever shrivelled by white frost, by the fact that the barbarian tongue knows not a Latin voice and Greek is mastered by the sound of Getic, as that I am surrounded and hard pressed on every side by war close at hand and that a low wall scarce gives me safety from the foe. Yet peace there is at times, confidence in peace never: so does this place now suffer, now fear attack.

Here, the theme of fear and a threatening environment is closely linked to the linguistic soundscape. The whole environment is described as hostile and adverse to human life, distorting everything, creating a veritable tunnel of horrors. This is not a singular occurrence in the above passage, but it happens rather more commonly in Ovid, as e. g. the following piece demonstrates (Ov. trist. 3.11.7–14):

barbara me tellus et inhospita litora Ponti
cumque suo Borea Maenalis Vrsa uidet.
nulla mihi cum gente fera commercia linguae:
10 omnia solliciti sunt loca plena metus.
utque fugax auidis ceruus deprensus ab ursis,
cinctaue montanis ut pauet agna lupis,
sic ego belligeris a gentibus undique saeptus
terreor, hoste meum paene premente latus.

A barbarous land, the unfriendly shores of Pontus, and the Maenalian bear with her companion Boreas behold me. No interchange of speech have I with the wild people; all places are charged with anxiety and fear. As a timid stag caught by ravenous bears or a lamb surrounded by the mountain wolves is stricken with terror, so am I in dread, hedged about on all sides by warlike tribes, the enemy almost pressing against my side.

Ovid, in his linguistic isolation in the middle of a terrifying nowhere, feels like an adorable, harmless creature surrounded by ferocious killer animals, just waiting for them to attack him, incapable of communicating (not that speaking the bears’ language perfectly well would do a timid stag much good – just see what happened to me yesterday!)

The passage that truly stands out, to my mind, however, is this one (Ov. trist. 5.10.35–42):

exercent illi sociae commercia linguae:
per gestum res est significanda mihi.
barbarus hic ego sum, qui non intellegor ulli,
et rident stolidi verba Latina Getae;
meque palam de me tuto mala saepe loquuntur,
forsitan obiciunt exiliumque mihi.
utque fit, in se aliquid fingi, dicentibus illis
abnuerim quotiens adnuerimque, putant.

They hold intercourse in the tongue they share; I must make myself understood by gestures. Here it is I that am a barbarian, understood by nobody; the Getae laugh stupidly at Latin words, and in my presence they often talk maliciously about me in perfect security, perchance reproaching me with my exile. Naturally they think that I am poking fun at them whenever I have nodded no or yes to their speech.

Ovid, in describing his own linguistic isolation far away from Rome, goes right to the heart of the matter: there seems to be an inherent fear (not always unfounded, of course) that people speaking in a language one does not understand, may, in fact, be talking about those who are around them. Are they mocking their fellow human beings? Ridiculing them? And what about the way in which the speakers of the surrounding majority language respond to the presence of this alien intruder? They too seem to feel challenged and mocked by the isolated speaker of Latin – a remarkable bottom line of this passage!

Language is a quintessential, fundamental part of our individual and collective identities. One might thus find it understandable that foreign sounds and words are being perceived as inherently threatening by some – due to a fear of the unknown, a fear of secrecy that surrounds us, ultimately a fear of exclusion and lack of control. (‘Taking back control’ was one of the major slogans of Camp Leave!)


But, like with any fear, the right course of action cannot be to spout abuse at the trigger and tell it to go away. It sure does not work that way for those who are afraid of dark basements. It does not work that way with foreign languages in one’s midst, either. What is needed in either case is illumination.

Teaching foreign languages and cultures, ancient and modern, and laying the foundations for tolerance and an open-mindedness in which hollow nationalism, enshrined in the phrase ‘taking back control’, does not have a place as the last resort of those who have little else to be proud of may never have been more important than it is today.

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In memoriam Jo Cox MP

Today, the increasingly shrill rhetoric around Britain’s future position within or outside the European Union (‘Bremain’ vs. ‘Brexit’) appears to have claimed the life of Labour MP Jo Cox.

We tend to think of speech as ‘mere words’.

But speech is a dangerous weapon, as Cicero reminds us in De oratore  3.55 (transl. H. Rackham):

Est enim eloquentia una quaedam de summis virtutibus – quanquam sunt omnes virtutes aequales et pares, sed tamen est specie alia magis alia formosa et illustris, sicut haec vis quae scientiam complexa rerum, sensa mentis et consilia sic verbis explicat ut eos qui audiant quocumque incubuerit possit impellere; quae quo maior est vis, hoc est magis probitate iungenda summaque prudentia; quarum virtutum expertibus si dicendi copiam tradiderimus, non eos quidem oratores effecerimus, sed furentibus quaedam arma dederimus.

For eloquence is one of the supreme virtues – although all the virtues are equal and on a par, but nevertheless one has more beauty and distinction in outward appearance than another, as is the case with this faculty, which, after compassing a knowledge of facts, gives verbal expression to the thoughts and purposes of the mind in such a manner as to have the power of driving the hearers forward in any direction in which it has applied its weight; and the stronger this faculty is, the more necessary it is for it to be combined with integrity and supreme wisdom, and if we bestow fluency of speech on persons devoid of those virtues, we shall not have made orators of them but shall have put weapons into the hands of madmen.

We owe it to Jo Cox not ever to forget this.

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Cicero’s Procrastinations

Today, Marcus Tullius Cicero is widely known as one of ancient Rome’s foremost lawyers, orators, philosophers, and statesmen. Born in 106 B. C., Cicero managed to establish himself in a difficult case in 80 B. C., when he – successfully – defended one Sextus Roscius of Ameria.

Lucius Cornelius Chrysogonus and  Titus Roscius Capito, partisans of Lucius Sulla, conspired to cheat Sextus Roscius, Cicero’s client, out of his property and his possessions, which he in turn had inherited from his father (for a fuller summary of the case see here). Part of the the cunning plan involved the late placement of the father’s name on a proscription list (as a result of which repossession of the deceased’s estate would have become legal).

The provincial council of Ameria opposed this plot and urged for Roscius Senior’s name to be taken off the list. It is in this context, or so it would appear, that Cicero invented a new word – a word, which has since seen a tremendous career (Cic. S. Rosc. 26; transl. J. H. Freese):

Ac primo rem differre cotidie ac procrastinare isti coeperunt, deinde aliquanto lentius, nihil agere atque deludere, postremo, id quod facile intellectum est, insidias vitae huiusce Sex. Rosci parare neque sese arbitrari posse diutius alienam pecuniam domino incolumi obtinere.

At first these men began to put off the matter day by day and defer it till the morrow, then to act more sluggishly, to do nothing, and befool the delegates; finally, as it was quite easy to see, they began to contrive a plot against the life of my client, thinking that they could no longer retain possession of the property of another while the real owner was alive.

Hipster Cicero

Cicero, Procrastinator Extraordinaire. Or not. Who knows.

This is the first instance in surviving ancient Latin sources that the word procrastinare, ‘to defer a matter till the morrow’ (from cras, ‘tomorrow’), occurs, and it is entirely possible that this is an ad hoc coinage of Cicero, as he does not use it entirely on its own, but felt the need to introduce it by the phrase rem differe cotidie, ‘to put off the matter day by day’, which essentially means the same thing, but uses words that were already well established in the Latin language.

Unlike in the modern sense of ‘to procrastinate’, procrastinare here is not an act of avoidance or delay in favour of more pleasurable tasks: it is a wilful delay in order to achieve one’s original, sinister aims.

Cicero seems to have liked this coinage. He uses the phrase procrastinare on six further occasions, four of which can be found in his next major career step, his speeches against the corrupt governor Verres of 70 B. C.

Interestingly enough, all four instances feature in the so-called actio secunda, a part of the set of speech that Cicero had prepared but never actually delivered (Verres acknowledged the hopelessness of his position and went into exile); Cicero published his material after the trial regardless, and here we find the following statements (all translations L. H. G. Greenwood):

  • At Cic. Verr. 2.1.141, Cicero says: Iste vero non procrastinat; locare incipit non proscripta neque edicta die, alienissimo tempore, ludis ipsis Romanis, foro ornato (‘Verres wasted no time; he proceeded with the tenders without any previous advertisement or announcement of the day for tendering, at a most unsuitable time, right in the middle of the Roman Games, with the Forum all decorated’).
  • At Cic. Verr. 2.2.90, Cicero says: Itaque illi non procrastinant, Sthenium statim educunt, aiunt ab eo litteras publicas esse corruptas (‘At this they delayed no longer, but promptly issued a summons against Sthenius, and alleged that he had forged an official document’).
  • At Cic. Verr. 2.4.100, Cicero says: Res non procrastinatur. Nam cum iste Catina  profectus esset, servi cuiusdam nomen defertur; is accusatur, ficti testes in eum dantur (‘His wishes were promptly carried out; after he had left Catina, information was laid against a certain slave, who was prosecuted, witnesses being secured to swear falsely to his guilt’).
  • At Cic. Verr. 2.5.102, Cicero says: Iste non procrastinat, advocat amicos statim; quaerit ex iis singillatim quot quisque nautas habuerit (‘Thereupon without loss of time he had his friends summoned to his presence, and then asked the captains one by one how many sailors he had had’).

What is noteworthy is that, in all four instances, Cicero does not only use the term in the negative (non procrastinat vel sim.), but also immediately adds expressions of temporal immediacy or urgency: incipit (‘he proceeded’) in the first instance and statim (‘promptly’) in the three following cases. This would appear to be a move to help those who are baffled by the new(ish) term procrastinare – guiding their understanding in the right direction.

After its use in Cicero’s early speeches, the term does not appear in any of his speeches or other works for almost thirty years. It resurfaces in two instances in 43 B. C., the year of Cicero’s assassination.

It is the earlier of those two instances which constitutes the verb’s preliminary highpoint, when it appears in its nominalisation procrastinatio in the sixth Philippic Oration of January 43 (Cic. Philip. 6.7.6, transl. D. R. Shackleton-Bailey et al., modified to reflect the text’s actual meaning and gist more appropriately):

Quae cum ita sint, non omnino dissolutum est quod decrevit senatus: habet atrocitatis aliquid legatio: utinam nihil haberet morae! Nam cum plerisque in rebus gerendis tarditas et procrastinatio odiosa est, tum hoc bellum indiget celeritatis.

Given these facts, what the senate decreed is not altogether remiss: the embassy carries a certain amount of bite. I only wish it involved no delay! While tardiness and procrastination are loathsome in most matters that require doing, this war particularly calls for speed.

Here, in a quote that is popular on the internet for some reason, usually stripped of its context and its syntax, Cicero calls for quick and united support of Decimus Brutus’ action against Mark Antony in the period of turmoil that followed Caesar’s assassination.

Related to the very same scenario, in a letter to Marcus Brutus of early April 43 and thus approximately half a year before Cicero’s assassination, Cicero complains (Cic. ad Brut. 1.1.; transl. D. R. Shackleton-Bailey):

non enim ignoras quanta momenta sint in re publica temporum et quid intersit idem illud utrum ante an post decernatur, suscipiatur, agatur. omnia quae severe decreta sunt hoc tumultu, si aut quo die dixi sententiam perfecta essent et non in diem ex die dilata aut quo ex tempore suscepta sunt ut agerentur non tardata et procrastinata, bellum iam nullum haberemus.

You are well aware of the importance of the right moment in political affairs, and what a vast difference it makes whether the same decree or enterprise or action be adopted before or after. If only all the strong measures decreed during this turmoil had been carried through the day I proposed them, or not put off from one day to the next or dragged out and procrastinated after action upon them had been taken in hand, we should now have no war.

After Cicero’s death, the word procrastinare and its related noun procrastinatio largely disappeared from Latin literature (and it appears to be absent from the inscriptions as well). It is occurs, however, in Fronto‘s letters (2.7.19, transl. C. R. Haines):

Hoc quod vocas interim, quanti<sper> sperabit? Si tantisper dum spirat, paulisper sperabit. Quis segeti torridae messem procrastinat? Nec non quis vindemiam maturam ac distillantem propellit? Aut sa<ne> quis tempus prorogat pomis mitibus aut floribus marcescentibus aut facibus | ardentibus? aptum soli <nas>centi verbum est interim, occid<enti> confestim.

This that you call the meanwhile, how long can he expect to hope for it? If as long as he breathes, it will be but a brief time for hope. Who delays to put the sickle to the sun-browned cornfield? and who defers the vintage when the grapes are ripe and dropping their juice? Who in fact loses time when fruits are mellowing, flowers fading, and torches burning down? Meanwhile is a word that fits the rising sun, for the setting sun the word is at once.

And finally, it features in Aulus Gellius‘ report of how Vergil did not manage to revise his masterpiece, the Aeneid (Gell. 17.10.5-7, transl. J. C. Rolfe):

Nam quae reliquit perfecta expolitaque quibusque inposuit census atque dilectus sui supremam manum, omni poeticae venustatis laude florent; sed quae procrastinata sunt ab eo, ut post recenserentur, et absolvi, quoniam mors praeverterat, nequiverunt, nequaquam poetarum elegantissimi nomine atque iudicio digna sunt. Itaque cum morbo obpressus adventare mortem viderat, petivit oravitque a suis amicissimis inpense, ut Aeneida, quam nondum satis elimavisset, adolerent.

For the parts that he left perfected and polished, to which his judgment and approval had applied the final hand, enjoy the highest praise for poetical beauty; but those parts which he postponed, with the intention of revising them later, but was unable to finish because he was overtaken by death, are in no way worthy of the fame and taste of the most elegant of poets. It was for that reason, when he was laid low by disease and saw that death was near, that he begged and earnestly besought his best friends to burn the Aeneid, which he had not yet sufficiently revised.

This is as close as it gets to the modern concept of procrastination, in academic contexts at least,  except that we still don’t hear which more pleasurable things Vergil did instead of completing his work when he still had time: the focus of the term ‘to procrastinate’ in our ancient sources consistently remains on the delay itself rather than the replacement activities.

I could – and probably should – come up with a proper conclusion here, but I fear I have procrastinated for too long already . . . . . .

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Sex, Gender Roles, and Hatred

In 1908, Edith Morley was appointed Professor of English Language at University College Reading – the institution that eventually became the University of Reading. Professor Morley’s autobiographical sketch, ‘Looking Before and After’ was recently published as ‘Before and After: Reminiscences of a Working Life‘ by Reading’s Two Rivers Press, carefully edited by Barbara Morris, with a preface by Mary Beard.


Edith Morley. – Image source here.

This is, without a doubt, one of the finest books that I have read all year (so far), telling the story of a remarkable person and a remarkable life, giving a highly personal insight in the history of my own employer as well as the struggles it took a female academic at the time to establish herself in an overwhelmingly male-dominated environment (and many a time, while reading this fine piece, I wondered what progress had been made in some areas).

The book resonated with me for a number of reasons, not least because Professor Morley repeatedly comments on her linguistic education (which included a number of modern languages, but excluded Ancient Greek and Latin), letting her down on occasion, not so much for intellectual than for institutional reasons.

If there is any one passage in this book which struck me in particular, it has to be one on the very first couple of pages of the actual memoirs (p. 11-2):

‘But I did hate being a girl and can still remember my indignation at hearing my brother told that only girls cheated at games and the like, or cried when they were hurt. And how I hated and resented wearing gloves. When quite small I suffered from a thick woollen veil, which was supposed to safeguard the complexion, but my very noisy and voluble protests soon relieved me of that infliction – old-fashioned and unusual in those days. I also resented and constantly disobeyed the rule that I must not slide down the banisters or turn head over heels! I had gymnastic lessons, however, and learned how to swim, but I yearned for more of the team games which girls did not yet play and suffered a good deal from insufficient outlets for my physical exuberance.’

The reason as to why this passage struck me in particular is its very initial phrase – Professor Morley’s expression of disdain and hatred of the way in which her sex determined her environment’s gendered expectations and behaviours – dated even by the standards of the Victorian era. It reminded me of the clearest expression of such ‘hatred’ in the ancient world – in an epigram of the late antique poet Ausonius for his aunt Aemilia Hilaria (Parentalia 6, transl. H. G. E. White):

Tuque gradu generis matertera, sed vice matris
adfectu nati commemoranda pio,
Aemilia, in cunis Hilari cognomen adepta,
quod laeta et pueri comis ad effigiem,
reddebas verum non dissimulanter ephebum,
more virum medicis artibus experiens.

feminei sexus odium tibi semper et inde
crevit devotae virginitatis amor.
quae tibi septenos novies est culta per annos
quique aevi finis, ipse pudicitiae.
haec, quia uti mater monitis et amore fovebas,

supremis reddo filius exequiis.

You too who, though in kinship’s degree an aunt, were to me a mother, must now be recalled with a son’s affection, Aemilia, who in the cradle gained the second name of Hilarus (Blithesome), because, bright and cheerful after the fashion of a boy, you made without pretence the very picture of a lad busied in the art of healing, like a man. You ever hated your female sex, and so there grew up in you the love of consecrated maidenhood. Through three and sixty years you maintained it, and your life’s end was also a maiden’s end. You cherished me with your precepts and your love as might a mother; and therefore as a son I make you this return at your last rites.

There are numerous interpretations of this poem out there, from lesbianism to gender indeterminacy or misassignment to asexuality (see Martin Nichols’ blog piece on this poem for an overview). Particular problems are caused by the phase devota virginitas (‘consecrated maidenhood’), which may, but need not, have religious connotations of sorts (and need not be understood as a reference to the Christian faith).

To my mind, it makes little sense to speculate, on the basis of this, over Aemilia Hilaria’s sexuality – all one gets to know is that the devotae virginitatis amor, ‘the love of consecrated maidenhood’ grew up in her (note the contrast between hate and love in this passage!), implying that she did not get married rather than that she abhorred sexual encounters more generally (though it is conceivable that she did, if one is to take the reference to her pudicitia, her ‘bashfulness’, towards the end of this poem literally and not just as a topical honorific expression as common in ancient funerary poetry; the rendering, above, as ‘your life’s end was also a maiden’s end’ is somewhat judicious as compared to what the Latin text actually says).

Much rather, it seems reasonable to focus on what is said initially. She was laeta et pueri comis ad effigiem, ‘bright and cheerful after the fashion of a boy’ from the earliest stages of her life. She was someone who somehow gave the impression of a verum non dissimulanter ephebum, who ‘made without pretence the very picture of a lad’. She was someone who may have established herself in the male-dominated profession of medicine (though it is ultimately unclear as to what extent she carried out this profession professionally and for financial gain): more virum medicis artibus experiens, ‘busied in the art of healing, like a man’.

I find it very easy to imagine Aemilia Hilaria as a person very much like the one whom Edith Morley described in her autobiographical sketch: someone who developed a feminei sexus odium, a hatred for (her) female sex, due to her society’s overall gender expectations. Aemilia Hilaria, though mocked with a boy’s name as Hilarus by her contemporaries, appears to have found support and love in her family. Professor Morley fought hard for respect and recognition – for a meritocracy in which sex and gender become irrelevant for one’s aspirations, prospects, and opportunities.

It is inspirational to see such success stories from across time and space.

If only they were the rule rather than the exception . . .

Posted in Education, History of Reading, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Called to the Grave

It has been almost a year since I last visited Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirkyard. Back to  Edinburgh this week as external examiner, I found a little spare time to take a stroll to this marvellous space, and I came back with a rich harvest of photos of Latin inscriptions that one gets to see here.

One monument that caught my attention in particular, however, is that of James Skene, inserted into the north-facing outside wall of Greyfriars Kirk, leading a miserable, abject existence behind a rubbish bin:

Skene monument, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. – Photo (c) PK, June 2016.

Skene monument, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. – Photo (c) PK, June 2016.

The reason this piece caught my attention lies in the first line of its text, which in its original Latin reads as follows:

Hic citus est honorabilis vir d(omi)n(u)s
Iacobus Skene de Curri Hill miles et
baroneta et preces Collegii
Iustitiae qui obiit 15 die mensis
Octobris anno d(omi)ni 1633
aetatis suue 54.

Below the epitaph, there is a motto scroll, which reads:

Manet altera mercis.

The main part of the inscription commemorates Sir James Skene, 1st Baronet of Curriehill. For the main part, the text of the inscription is reasonably straightforward and clear. It is supposed to translate as follows:

Here lies the honourable gentleman Sir James Skene of Curriehill, Knight and Baronet and Lord President of the College of Justice, who died on the 15th day of the month of October in the year of the Lord 1633, in the 54th year of his age.

The inscribed Latin text contains, however, a number of distracting spelling oddities, which deserve highlighting.

The most straightforward one is the awkward spelling of (what ought to be) SVAE (suae, ‘his’) as SVVE (with the two Vs intersecting) in the final line: this may be a mere stonecutter’s mistake: there are other ligatures in this text, and perhaps the stonecutter merely mistook a combination of V and A for VV.

What is more remarkable, though, is the spelling of citus and preces in the first and third line, respectively. Citus means something like ‘excited’, ‘set in motion’, ‘called to’. Does that mean that, in a punny variant to the exceedingly well-attested phrase hic situs est (‘here lies’), James Skene was called to his grave . . . ? (Treating hic and huc as virtually interchangeable, as often, even in ancient Latin?)

Unfortunately, the spelling of preces makes that very unlikely.

Preces means something like ‘requests’ – yet the man was hardly ‘the requests of the College of Justice’: much rather, he was its Lord President, or, in Latin: its praeses. Spelling the ancient Latin diphthong -ae- as -e- is a common feature even in ancient Latin texts (that is, arguably, how the diphthong was widely pronounced anyway for most of the time by most of the people). The representation of the sharp Latin -s- sound (or voiceless alveolar sibilant) as -c- is rather more remarkable.

In our inscription, this awkward spelling features twice – not only in preces, but also in citus: Skene was not ‘called to’ the grave, he simply ‘lies here’: hic situs est.

The same peculiar spelling is attested for a monument on Dundee’s Howff graveyard (which I have visited on another occasion), in an inscription dating to the 16th century, which is discussed in greater detail here.

The inscription’s concluding motto, Manet altera mercis, is another oddity. It seems to mean ‘another reward remains’, but not only does it spell mercis where it more appropriately should have said merces – it is also a variant of the actual motto of Clan Skene, Virtutis regia merces, ‘A palace the reward of bravery’), for which I can’t seem to find any further evidence beyond this particular piece.

Fancy some further goodies from the same area of Greyfriars?

Here is the monument for Thomas Robertson, a famous builder immortalised (well, kind of) in an elegy celebrating his life-time achievements, giving its inscription on sculpted drapery (careful when looking at this – the sculptor’s desire to make the text follow the logic of actual drapery may induce a slight sensation of sea-sickness):

2016-05-31 18.46.51.jpg

Monument for Thomas Robertson, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. – Photo (c) PK, May 2016.

The text reads as follows:

Ae(ternae) M(emoriae) S(acrum).
Hic situs est
Thomas Robertson
aequissimus vir superis apprime charus
qui clarissimum Robisoniorum nomen
virtute sua plurimum illustravit,
pietate in deum, fide in regem, amore in patriam,
humanitate erga omnes insignis,
prudentia, integritate in rebus agundis solertiE
nemini secundus:
pauperum spes & caput, artificum columen,
Urbis exornator si non conditor,
civium deliciae, gentis desiderium.
Conjugi optimo, patri amantissimo
uxor & liberi haeredes moesti posuere.
Obiit XI Kal(endas) Octob(res) anno dom(ini)
MDCLXXXVI aetatis suae LXIII.
Vivit post funera virtus.

In the translation of James Brown (not the musician!), with my translation of the first line added:

Sacred to eternal memory. Here is interred Thomas Robertson, bailie of Edinburgh, and most just in that office. A man very dear to God, who, by his virtue, greatly illustrated the most famous name of Robison; being notable for his piety towards God, loyalty towards his prince, love to his country, and civility towards all persons. He was inferior to none in prudence, integrity, and dexterity in management of business; he was the hope and life of the poor, the support of tradesmen, the adorner, if not the builder, of the city, the delight of the citizens, and the desire of the whole nation. To him, as the best of husbands and most loving of parents, his most mournful wife and his children, his heirs, erected this monument. He died the 21st day of September, the year of our Lord 1686, of his age the 63<rd> year. Virtue survives the grave.

And then there is the monument for John Carmichael!

Joanni Carmichael Edinburgensi
viro probo, civi optimo
Collegii a Georgio Heriot munifice fundati
curatori fideli
inter rumores de re male administrata
jamdiu pervulgatos
et litem forensem in curatores
acerrime intentam
quaestoris collegii officium
quamvis tantae invidiae tunc obnoxium
suscipere non recusavit,
sed ejus rem pecuniariam
difficultatitbus gravissimis implicatam
per multos annos, dum valetudo sineret,
indefessus administravit, restituit, auxit:
hoc marmor
exile quidem, sed honorificum
publicae existimationis monumentum
reliqui ejusdem collegii curatores.
Obiit die 28o mensis Julii A(nno) D(omini) 1785
aetatis suae 74.o.

Again in the translation of James Brown:

To John Carmichael of Edinburgh, an upright man, a most excellent citizen, a faithful Governor of the Hospital munificently founded by George Heriot, who, amid the reports which had long been current about the mal-administration of its property, and during the lawsuit raised with the greatest acrimony against the Governors, did not decline to undertake the office of Treasurer to the Hospital, although at the time obnoxious to such odium, but for many years, while health permitted, indefatigably administered, put in order, and amplified its funds, involved in the most serious embarrassment. This marble, a slender, indeed, but honourable monument of the esteem in which he was publicly held, was erected by the remaining Governors of the same Hospital. He died on the 28th July A. D. 1785, in the 74th year of his age.

Posted in Epigraphy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Of Arms … Errr: Biscuits I Sing!

Regular readers of my blog will know of my interest in the local history of Berkshire’s county town of Reading. I could not have been more thrilled, therefore, when I went through my University’s archive catalogue and found a record for a poem entitled ‘Floreat Radingia (The Biscuit City)’ – a promise of Latin AND Reading AND biscuits at the same time. Naturally, I requested the item immediately, and Reading’s wonderful Special Collections staff retrieved it for me within hours.

The piece in the University’s archive (class mark HP 260; accession date 3.63) is a photocopy of a published poem, written by one W. J. Barker of 39 Carnarvon Road, Reading, a factory operative, that was published on occasion of May 1st (i. e. Labour Day!), 1883, by W. Millard Steam Printer, Reading. (No further details are available to me.)

The only actual Latin element of this poem is its title, which translates as ‘May Reading Flourish’ – but the poem did (and does) not disappoint. It is just too good not to share.

Floreat Radingia.
(The Biscuit City.)

“He, who by his Talents and Perseverance, provides employment for his brother man, is a benefactor to his race.”

Of War and Carnage Poets often sing,
But Peace hath victories greater far;
Let Commerce her broad pinions wing,
My tribute is to Labour, not to War.

On the banks of Kennet’s river,
In Reading’s famous town,
Stands a massive pile of buildings,
Of fame and wide renown.

 Should a stranger ask the business
Of the place, what may it be?
Say, ‘tis the Biscuit City,
Of the famous H. and P.

‘Tis Spring-time, trees are budding,
And the birds are singing sweet;
And the stillness of the morning
Is woke by tramp of feet.

For the Factory bell is ringing,
Sharp and clear on the morning air;
As the workman to his labour
Hurries on, be it foul or fair.

For the bread-winner’s life is happy,
If health and strength be given;
And his song is light, and cheerful
As the lark’s, as it soars to Heaven.

For on him his wife and children
Depend for their daily fare;
A neat little home, and a cheerful wife,
Relieve from a load of care.

For home is the workman’s haven,
From the storms and shallows of life;
If the wife and husband together,
Steer clear of passion and strife.

 If he keeps a tight grip of the helm,
And she looks to the stores below;
The waves shall their bark not o’erwhelm,
Their lives then serenely shall flow.

Now through the gates and in the ranks,
The toilers hurry on;
And the Timester quickly ticks them off,
And quickly are they gone.

Each to his separate duty now,
Takes his accustomed way;
By power of steam the wheels revolve,
Thus ope’s the labouring day.

 At first, the various condiments
Are briskly worked about:
Which, then, beneath the rollers
Is quickly flattened out.

Like printing presses, the machines
Act on the supple dough;
The cylinders come down a thud,
Now, see, the biscuits grow.

Sharp to the ovens they are borne,
Then quickly travel through;
Cocoa Nut, Lemon Drops, and Lorne,
Palermo, Neapolitan and Bijou.

Rich Travellers, Garibaldi, and Argyle,
Come forth ‘midst the Festal throng;
Alexandra, Sultana, and the Little Folk,
To our wondrous list belong.

The Sorting Room we enter now,
Where, at the tables stand
The Sorter, who with greatest care,
Quick eye, and ready hand,

Manipulates so carefully,
The damaged goods to find;
While visions strange pass fitfully,
Like shadows o’er his mind.

The Sorter’s duty being done,
The goods are sent away
By “Jacob’s Ladder,” to the stores;
Though short their time to stay.

For Home, Export, and Continental,
The Packers ready wait;
The Orders to complete with speed,
According to their date.

France, Italy, America,
India, China, and Japan;
Wherever Commerce wins a field,
In the busy haunts of man.

 The Abbey now in ruins it doth lie,
The Biscuit City stands in all its prime;
Commerce with winged speed doth fly,
And travellers come from every clime.

I’m overwhelmed, said Beaconsfield, and died,
And from the cares of state he passed away;
Light, more Light, the noble Goethe cried;
O brother worker, help to clear the way.

A remarkable celebration of industrial work in late 19th century Reading, the poem celebrates the working conditions and the production at Huntley & Palmers, then obviously still based in Reading.

In a tradition dating back to the ancient world (see, for example, the second item that I discussed in my post ‘And the owl doesn’t care‘), the poem opens with an obvious allusion to the first line of Vergil’s Aeneid, ‘Of arms and the man I sing’, arma virumque cano – a poem, which, very much as the author here suggests, relates war and carnage.

Another particularly interesting aspect (to me anyway) is the reference to Reading Abbey, suggesting that the biscuit factory essentially – and in a positive way – provides a continuation of the abbey’s role in attracting people to this town. This is the exact opposite way in which another, rather earlier local author had seen the role of work and hard toil at Reading when it came to the workhouse known as the Oracle (as I have explained here).

Attached to the photocopy of this poem in the University’s Special Collections, there are a couple of pages written on a typewriter, detailling what would appear to be the situation at Huntley & Palmers during or just after the war. It concludes with another little poem (of unknown authorship):

I remember, I remember
The awful fear that lingers
That I have been a cannibal
Through eating butter fingers.

And stolen feasts of long ago
Which seemed so fine and dandy,
When we got tight on brandy snaps
That hadn’t any brandy.

 The cracker in cream crackers made
Me half afraid to risk it,
We thatched cheese straws and water sprang
From every water biscuit.

I remember, I remember
The doughnut’s nutless joys –
Perhaps they’re called just doughs right now
By can’t-fool-us-doughboys.

Posted in History of Reading, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Sneaking a Peek at Reading Abbey

Recently, I have not found as much time to write pieces for this blog as I used to. Summer term – exam period  at Reading – is upon us, and in addition to that, I have been very busy working towards a little booklet about the Latin inscriptions of St. Albans Cathedral. (In this context, I was able to make a number of what I thought were rather remarkable little observations, some of which I hope I will be able share with you on my blog in due course.)

At the same time, my work on the St. Albans Latin inscription also made me think of the great number of inscribed texts, Latin and otherwise, that must have disappeared as a result of the dissolution of Reading Abbey in the wake of the reformation under King Henry VIII.

WotWIn fact, in my little book on the Reading Latin Inscriptions, published with the wonderful Two Rivers Press last year, I did not include a single piece directly related to Reading Abbey. There would have been a few items in Reading Museum that I could have considered – but ultimately they did not amount to much, so I chose to omit them after all.

During a walk through Reading yesterday, however, to try out my most recent acquisition of an old Russian analogue camera (a FED-2, in case you are interested), I walked past the abbey ruins.

Due to the level of disrepair, the ruins are currently inaccessible to the general public. But walking past a little garden square by what used to be the abbey’s chapter house, I remembered something.

When I moved to Reading in 2007, the abbey was still open to the public. It was at that time that I took several photos of the ruins, in particular two of memorials attached to the walls of the chapter house, commemorating the first and the last abbots of Reading (both of whom, incidentally, were called Hugh).

The two memorials were unveiled some 105 years ago, on July 10th, 1911, as a booklet produced for the very occasion commemorates (click here for a freely available pdf).

The first memorial displays a scene in which a kneeling man, Hugh de Boves, receives his insignia from the hands of King Henry I. Both men appear accompanied: the king by men at arms, the abbot by monks, carrying a reliquary. Above this scene, there are two armorial shields – one that exhibits the three shells of Reading Abbey, and one that exhibits a grazing ox, an allusion to the abbot’s name ‘de Boves’.


Below this scene, there is an inscription of four lines, which reads as follows:

To the memory of Hugh de Boves, first abbot of Reading,
A. D. 1123-1130, afterwards archbishop of Rouen, A. D. 1130-1160.
Amor plebis, tremor potentum,
clarus avis, clarus studiis, recreator egentum.’

The final two lines, in Latin, appear to be taken from a poem in praise of the archbishops of Rouen, in which Hugh de Boves comes third (I give the bits that are included in the above inscription in bold):

Huic successit, amor plebis, tremor Hugo potentum,
Clarus avis, clarus studiis, recreator egentum.

In English:

He is succeeded by Hugo, the love of the people, the fear of the mighty,
Famous in ancestry, famous in his studies, restorer of the needy.

The second memorial shows a rather less empowering scene: Hugh Cook Faringdon, Reading’s last abbot, Catholic martyr and saint (and subsequently name-giver of a rather agreeable local pub), stands with a rope around his neck, about to be hanged (together with a couple of other monks), and addresses Reading’s local elite. Above, again, there are two armorial shields – Reading Abbey’s to the left, and the abbot’s to the right.


Underneath the scene, there is the following inscription:

To the memory of Hugh Cook Faringdon, last abbot of Reading,
A. D. 1520-1539, who refused to surrender his abbey
to King Henry VIII. and died on the gallows.
In te, domine, speravi.’

In te, domine, speravi, ‘In Thee, O Lord, have I put my trust’, is the opening verse of Psalm 71 (= 70 of the Vulgate tradition).

Next Saturday (May 21st, 12pm, meeting at Reading’s Saint Laurence Church), I will be leading a walking tour for those interested in the town’s Latin past as my personal fun contribution to Reading’s Year of Culture .

As the abbey ruins continue to be closed to the public (there is hope for the future, however!), I will not be able to show the above two pieces on that occasion; but I promise that there will be a lot else for everyone to see!

Posted in Epigraphy, History of Reading | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Groans of the Britons

In a couple of months’ time, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum over a contentious question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

As a foreigner currently residing in Britain, I am denied a vote in the referendum. Not having to worry about making up my mind on such matters, I get to use my time on other endeavours instead.

In my desire to make the most of this opportunity, I managed to discover for myself, and to read, a most stunning and wildly entertaining historical (well, kind of, anyway) work: GildasDe excidio et conquestu Britanniae (‘On Britain’s Ruin and Conquest’).

The De excidio et conquestu Britanniae is sixth-century piece that describes, among other things, Britain’s situation after the Romans decided to write off their unruly northwesternmost possession, to focus on more pressing matters instead, and the subsequent Saxon conquest.

Admittedly, this is a moderately disappointing narrative at first: wouldn’t it be great if the Romans had been made to withdraw, following a proto-Brexit referendum . . . ?

At any rate, Gildas writes (ch. 18-20, transl. J. A. Giles) –

The Romans, therefore, left the country, giving notice that they could no longer be harassed by such laborious expeditions, nor suffer the Roman standards, with so large and brave an army, to be worn out by sea and land by fighting against these unwarlike, plundering vagabonds; but that the islanders, inuring themselves to warlike weapons, and bravely fighting, should valiantly protect their country, their property, wives and children, and, what is dearer than these, their liberty and lives; that they should not suffer their hands to be tied behind their backs by a nation which, unless they were enervated by idleness and sloth, was not more powerful than themselves, but that they should arm those hands with buckler, sword, and spear, ready for the field of battle; and, because they thought this also of advantage to the people they were about to leave, they, with the help of the miserable natives, built a wall different from the former, by public and private contributions, and of the same structure as walls generally, extending in a straight line from sea to sea, between some cities, which, from fear of their enemies, had there by chance been built. They then give energetic counsel to the timorous natives, and leave them patterns by which to manufacture arms. Moreover, on the south coast where their vessels lay, as there was some apprehension lest the barbarians might land, they erected towers at stated intervals, commanding a prospect of the sea; and then left the island never to return.

No sooner were they gone, than the Picts and Scots, like worms which in the heat of the mid-day come forth from their holes, hastily land again from their canoes, in which they had been carried beyond the Cichican valley, differing one from another in manners, but inspired with the same avidity for blood, and all more eager to shroud their villainous faces in bushy hair than to cover with decent clothing those parts of their body which required it. Moreover, having heard of the departure of our friends, and their resolution never to return, they seized with greater boldness than before on all the country towards the extreme north as far as the wall. To oppose them there was placed on the heights a garrison equally slow to fight and ill adapted to run away, a useless and panic-struck company, who slumbered away days and nights on their unprofitable watch. Meanwhile the hooked weapons of their enemies were not idle, and our wretched countrymen were dragged from the wall and dashed against the ground. Such premature death, however, painful as it was, saved them from seeing the miserable sufferings of their brothers and children. But why should I say more? They left their cities, abandoned the protection of the wall, and dispersed themselves in flight more desperately than before. The enemy, on the other hand, pursued them with more unrelenting cruelty than before, and butchered our countrymen like sheep, so that their habitations were like those of savage beasts; for they turned their arms upon each other, and for the sake of a little sustenance, imbued their hands in the blood of their fellow countrymen. Thus foreign calamities were augmented by domestic feuds; so that the whole country was entirely destitute of provisions, save such as could be procured in the chase.

Again, therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Agitius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:—”To Agitius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons.” And again a little further, thus:—”The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.” The Romans, however, could not assist them, and in the meantime the discomfited people, wandering in the woods, began to feel the effects of a severe famine, which compelled many of them without delay to yield themselves up to their cruel persecutors, to obtain subsistence: others of them, however, lying hid in mountains, caves and woods, continually sallied out from thence to renew the war. And then it was, for the first time, that they overthrew their enemies, who had for so many years been living in their country; for their trust was not in man, but in God; according to the maxim of Philo, “We must have divine assistance, when that of man fails.” The boldness of the enemy was for a while checked, but not the wickedness of our countrymen; the enemy left our people, but the people did not leave their sins.

A major political and strategic departure, resulting in significant movements in Scotland, in an obvious reluctance of a former provider of (relative) stability and legal security to provide continued support to British affairs, in a detrimental impact on the economy, and eventually in getting a new (equally foreign) ‘management’ to replace the old one – and all this even though Britain finally (re-)gained control over its borders, in an attempt to prevent unwanted mass migration?

It’s a good job that history never ever repeats itself, I thought to myself when I laid aside Gildas’ work . . .

Posted in Prose | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Beware the Ides of March

Helvius Cinna, now virtually unknown to the wider public, once was one of Rome’s finest, most talented, highly acclaimed poets – a proponent of the progressive artistic movement of the neoterics.

Catullus, his (nowadays) rather more famous contemporary and fellow neoteric poet, revered him as a friend and celebrated his fine poetry, which inspired some of Rome’s greatest artists.

Little of Cinna’s poetry survived. One of the finest examples of his writing was preserved by Isidore of Seville. It reads as follows:

Haec tibi Arateis multum vigilata lucernis
carmina, quis ignis novimus aetherios,
levis in aridulo malvae descripta libello
Prusiaca vexi munera navicula.

In the translation of Adrian Hollis:

The poem, which teaches us about the fiery bodies in the sky, the subject of many sleepless nights with Aratus’ lamplight, I have brought to you as a present in a boat of Prusias, written on the dry bark of smooth mallow.

A man of culture and learning, a true connoisseur, Cinna (or so these lines make us believe) brought with him, from Bithynia (‘in a boat of Prusias’) an expensive display copy of Aratus’ Phaenomenaa poet much revered in Rome and a poem that inspired several (partly surviving) ancient Latin translations, including  versions by Cicero and Germanicus Caesar.

We don’t know who the recipient of this precious gift, written on mallow bark (or leaves, as Isidore thought?), and thus the recipient of this little epigram was.

What we do seem to know, however, is what became of Helvius Cinna subsequently.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

Vincenzo Camuccini, “Morte di Cesare”, 1798. – Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/Cesar-sa_mort.jpg

Suetonius, in his Life of Julius Caesar, reports that Caesar disregarded many sure-fire signs that hinted at his imminent demise (Suet. Iul. 81) and he thus inspired Shakespeare’s famous line ‘beware the Ides of March’:

Now Caesar’s approaching murder was foretold to him by unmistakable signs. A few months before, when the settlers assigned to the colony at Capua by the Julian Law were demolishing some tombs of great antiquity, to build country houses, and plied their work with the greater vigour because as they rummaged about they found a quantity of vases of ancient workmanship, there was discovered in a tomb, which was said to be that of Capys, the founder of Capua, a bronze tablet, inscribed with Greek words and characters to this purport: “Whenever the bones of Capys shall be moved, it will come to pass that a son of Ilium shall be slain at the hands of his kindred, and presently avenged at heavy cost to Italy.” And let no one think this tale a myth or a lie, for it is vouched for by Cornelius Balbus, an intimate friend of Caesar. Shortly before his death, as he was told, the herds of horses which he had dedicated to the river Rubicon when he crossed it, and had let loose without a keeper, stubbornly refused to graze and wept copiously. Again, when he was offering sacrifice, the soothsayer Spurinna warned him to beware of danger, which would come not later than the Ides of March; and on the day before the Ides of that month a little bird called the king-bird flew into the Hall of Pompey with a sprig of laurel, pursued by others of various kinds from the grove hard by, which tore it to pieces in the hall. In fact the very night before his murder he dreamt now that he was flying above the clouds, and now that he was clasping the hand of Jupiter; and his wife Calpurnia thought that the pediment of their house fell, and that her husband was stabbed in her arms; and on a sudden the door of the room flew open of its own accord.

‘Beware the Ides of March’ – Caesar chose to ignore those signs, and in keeping with this tradition, so did most people at whom this warning (which since has been turned into a barely concealed threat) has since been directed.

But Caesar was not the only one haunted by premonitions and bad omens around the Ides of March of 44 B C.

Helvius Cinna was, too.

Only a few days after Caesar’s death, the night before Caesar’s funeral, the following happened to him – according to Plutarch’s Life of Brutus (Plut. Brut. 20.7-11):

But there was a certain Cinna, a poet, who had no share in the crime, but was actually a friend of Caesar’s. This man dreamed that he was invited to supper by Caesar and declined to go, but that Caesar besought and constrained him, and finally took him by the hand and led him into a yawning and darksome place, whither he followed unwilling and bewildered. After having this vision, he fell into a fever which lasted all night; but in the morning, nevertheless, when the funeral rites were held over Caesar’s body, he was ashamed not to be present, and went out into the crowd when it was already becoming savage. He was seen, however, and being thought to be, not the Cinna that he really was, but the one who had recently reviled Caesar before the assembled people, he was torn in pieces.

Suetonius’ account is even more horrendous (Suet. Iul. 85) –

Immediately after the funeral the commons ran to the houses of Brutus and Cassius with firebrands, and after being repelled with difficulty, they slew Helvius Cinna when they met him, through a mistake in the name, supposing that he was Cornelius Cinna, who had the day before made a bitter indictment of Caesar and for whom they were looking; and they set his head upon a spear and paraded it about the streets.

Caesar’s assassination was unsurprising, some might even say inevitable. Cinna’s was that of an innocent bystander, that of a man in the wrong place at the wrong time … with the wrong name.

‘Beware the Ides of March’: we use this phrase to hint at a potential götterdämmerung (‘twilight of the gods’), the imminent, violent downfall of leading figures – something to behold in shock and awe.

Cinna’s assassination – and the ‘wrong’ Cinna’s assassination at that! – should remind us, though, that, while the high and mighty engage in vicious and violent battles for power and thus radicalise the masses, it is often the innocent bystander – the person in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong name – who truly must fear for their well-being.

Beware the Ides of March.

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