Category Archives: Ancient World

Why read the Aeneid of Virgil?

Arms and the man I sing

I recently finished my fourth English reading of Virgil’s Aeneid, this time in the translation of Frederick Ahl with an excellent introduction by the late Elaine Fantham (Fantham taught me Latin verse in my MA at Toronto, and I have enormous esteem for her work and great affection for her person).

As with the Iliad, there are good extrinsic reasons to read Virgil’s great epic — all post-Virgilian Latin verse, especially epic, for one thing. Even Ovid’s Amores — a magnificent series of elegiac love poetry — are haunted by Virgil, beginning with the word arma. Also, Dante (whom I also love) and Milton (Milton also has some Lucan in him — and Lucan is, in many ways, the anti-Virgil). Or if, like me, you’re a Bernini fan:

Someone somewhere once called the Aeneid the epic poem of Europe. We are all, for good or ill, wrapped up in the great European cultural project, from Homer to Star Trek. The Aeneid permeates much of this, and not only poetry, but philosophy at least as early as Seneca, theology in Augustine, and the visual arts. Oh, and Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. As I said about The Iliad:

not reading [it] means you are missing out on an integral part of your own cultural heritage and thus not leading a full life

Other reasons? So many. Here are three.

First, duty. This is perhaps a reason to read the Aeneid today. Over and over and over again in the Aeneid, the titular hero is ‘pius Aeneas’ — falsely rendered ‘pious’. Ahl goes for ‘righteous’, Heaney for ‘filled with devotion’. Aeneas, for all his faults (we’ll get to those), is a man who knows what his destiny is (okay, most of us don’t have gods and ghosts helping us out in that regard), and he does what is necessary to that end. He single-mindedly seeks to do his duty to his fate.

He is also a devoted son, father, husband — he seeks to do his duty to Anchises, his father, whom he carries away from Troy in spite of Anchises’ protestations. He also brings his son Iulus/Ascanius. He wishes to bring his wife Creusa, but she is slain in the god-rendered destruction of Troy.

Aeneas fulfils his duty to the gods. He brings with him his household gods from Troy to give them a new home. He performs sacrifices to the gods. He fulfils vows to the gods. He also fulfis his duty to the dead by giving them proper burial when possible.

In an age where we shirk duty when possible and do whatever we please, perhaps we could learn from Aeneas?

But — well, then there’s the second reason. Ambiguity. Is pius Aeneas always pious? Think of his own aristeia, the needless slaughter of so many Latins. The killing of his great foe. His manipulation and abandonment of Dido. Aeneas can be a violent, dangerous man. Not all of the killing in this poem is just, and some of the unjust killing is on the part of Aeneas, pius or not.

This is part of why I love this poem. Maybe we need to think about duty. But Virgil doesn’t avoid the muck. Death. War. Violence. Betrayal. These are the stuff of the crooked ways of humans. And his great, beautiful, heart-wrenching poetry draws you and pulls you. It’s an amazing poem — people like me want to find ‘morals’ to the story: Devoted Aeneas! But Virgil says, ‘Oh, but — violent Aeneas, angry Aeneas, shameless Aeneas, woman-abandoning Aeneas…’

Both Aeneases are real. That’s part of the beauty of the poem.

And so the third: The Aeneid is beautiful in Latin, beautiful in a good English translation. If you are Latin-less, get Fagles (Penguin) or Ahl (Oxford). Read it in verse — Dryden, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ve not read C. Day Lewis’s. Death can be beautiful when narrated by the greatest poet of the Latin language. Storms at sea can grip you. Even catalogues of Romans take on something beyond expected glory when rendered in dactylic hexameter.

There is power in Virgil’s verse. I find this hard to put into words, which probably makes me a bad critic. But maybe beauty isn’t quite right as the third reason. This is a magnificent, complex poem, referring backwards and forwards to itself. The action and the set descriptions are carefully paced to keep your interest. The relationship to Homer is there at first sight, and suddenly more complex at fourth read. Read the Aeneid because it is … wondrous.

I have a friend who hates the term ‘instant classic’. Nothing, she says, is an instant classic. Well, Virgil was. He was taught in schools almost as soon as he existed. Already, his contemporaries had to find new things to do. This poem could not be ignored by Ovid. Lucan, in his choice of the grotesque horror of civil war, had to do something completely different, composing verse in the shadow the great Virgil.

The Aeneid is a rich, powerful, complex, beautiful poem about destiny, about duty, and about the ambiguities of life as lived by mortals who are trying to do their duty and fulfil their destinies. Read it. Then read it again.

#philologywillsavetheworld

Also: check out my post about The Odyssey!

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Fortune favours the bold (but does she?)

Wheel. Of. Fortuune! (Carmina Burana, page with ‘O Fortuna’; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660, f. 1r)

One evening, my wife and I were walking with a friend who needed to catch a bus. As we waited to a cross a mildly busy street, we saw the bus on approach. I called out, ‘Fortune favours the bold!’ and ran across the street to hold the bus for them. This event stands out as one of my ‘loud in public and never to be forgotten moments’ (up there with ‘Gandalf is just a wizard’).

But I’m not sold on Fortune’s favour. The famous instance of someone making this proclamation is Pliny the Elder on his approach to Pompeii during Vesuvius’ eruption. He directs the ships towards the volcano:

‘Fortes’ inquit ‘fortuna iuvat.’

They evacuated some people (so maybe Fortune did favour him?), but, after strapping pillows to his head to keep the rocks from hurting him, Pliny the Elder stayed behind to observe this natural phenomenon. You can read about it in his nephew’s letters, Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.16.

I will have the joy of teaching Vergil’s Aeneid at UBC this Autumn, and I’ve been rereading it preparation. Here we see, Book 10.284, Turnus:

‘audentis Fortuna iuuat.’

Unfortunately for Turnus, the fates are against him. He and the other Italians may do very well in the ensuing battle, but by the end of Book 10, Aeneas has essentially become a giant, an elemental force of destruction. And at the end of Book 12, Turnus will lose his life.

If Turnus had been prudent, had not slain Pallas, he may have lived long enough to gain some sort of reprieve, or a treaty, or something. Instead, his daring (Latin audeo means ‘to dare’) brings destruction on many of his people and ultimately his death. The Trojans win this war, ultimately, and make marriage alliances with the people of Ausonia.

How much easier it would have been for everyone without Turnus’ boldness.

Not, one hastens to add, that this exonerates Aeneas of his Incredible Hulk-style ragefest of slaughter.

Ultimately, Fortune favours … no one. This is a main theme in Beothius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Fortune smiled on him for a time — a good marriage, the joint consulship of his sons. That sort of thing. But now he’s rotting in prison, doomed to die. This is the way the Wheel of Fortune turns. One may be king, at the top, one day, and a peasant at the bottom the next.

Fortune is fickle. Fortune may favour the bold Turnus today, only to have him slaughtered at the hand of his enemy the next.

In order to attain a state of lasting felicity, one must fix one’s attention on things beyond the domain of Fortune, fixing one’s heart on things above. This is what philosophy is for, and this is what Boethius is taught in the Consolation.

Reading Vergil, and seeing forces driven by Fate or the gods, this is worth thinking about.

Re-readings

I recently read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Virgil, Aeneid Book VI. This is the book of the Aeneid where Aeneas descends to the underworld in the company of the Sibyl of Cumae. It is probably the most famous book of the whole poem. I have read it before — four times in Latin, as well as three complete readings of the poem in English (once Jackson Knight, twice Fagles) plus C. S. Lewis’ Lost Aeneid. I have also read most of the Aeneid in Latin.

There is a special pleasure that comes of re-reading the Aeneid, whether in the translation of a masterful poet such as Heaney, or in the original masterful poet’s very own words. The discovery of something new, perhaps. Or surprising yourself by being immersed in Virgil’s verse yet again. Like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, you can taste Virgil again for the very first time. The beauty of the poetry will always entrance me. The pathos of Dido. The citadel of dread Proserpina. The catalogue of Romans.

Worth reading. Every time.

I re-read some things for work. I do not know how many times I have read certain of Leo’s letters. I may have surveyed over 240 manuscripts, but that does not mean I have actually read the entirety of them all! I would never have finished my Ph.D. Many things I re-read for work are also pleasure, of course. Academics do not choose disciplines we hate. So I’ve read Augustine’s Confessions three times (Pine Coffin once, Chadwick twice), likewise Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. I’ve read Homer’s Odyssey in its entirety three times (Fagles, Rieu, Shewring) although I have made some good headway in the original Greek. The Iliad I have read three times as well (Verity, Rieu, Lattimore), besides a teenage start on Fagles and a good chunk in Greek. Ovid’s Metamorphoses I’ve read in English twice (Melville both times) and various portions in Latin.

Circling back to Virgil, I have read all the Eclogues twice in Latin, once in English (whoever did the Loeb), and various of them multiple times in Latin.

I continue to re-read beyond work, for the pleasures are similar, even if the goals of reading differ. Right now, I am between The Two Towers and The Return of the King in my fourth reading of The Lord of the Rings; I have read The Hobbit five times. Narnia — who knows? All of them at least twice! I have read Beowulf three times. Many others I think have read only twice, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated ManThe Nibelungenlied, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight.

Then there are short works that resonate. I have inscribed John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God’ in the back of a notebook. Who knows how many re-reads that has had?

And, of course, those I want to re-read. Asimov’s Foundation novels, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451The Way of a Pilgrim.

Re-readings make reading a richer experience, catching what you missed, remembering what you’d forgotten, remembering what you loved, being drawn back into something again. And again.

I know someone who reads books three times. Once to see if they are worth reading. If they are, he reads them again to enjoy them more. And a third time to see what he missed the other times. He has read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov nine times. Well, that was in 2004 or 2005 — so maybe he’s surpassed that by now!

It’s a worthy approach to literature.

Excuse me, I have some Virgil to read.

Two Fulgentii for the price of one

In my latest post for the Durham Priory Library Recreated project blog, I discuss the insufficiencies of the old Durham Cathedral catalogue and point out the library’s manuscripts with works by Fulgentius. Both of him. Enjoy!

Sorting out your Fulgentii

What can you learn from a list of popes?

My latest offering on the Durham Priory Library Recreated blog discusses what a late twelfth-century papal catalogue (a type of document I’ve blogged about before) shows us about eighth-century history. Or, at least, how it refracts that history:

Dates, Popes, and Emperors

 

The Interesting Times of Leo the Great’s pre-episcopal career

I wrote the following as I revise my Ph.D. dissertation into a book, but I have decided to excise it as extraneous. Nonetheless, I think it is material of interest, especially to the general reader (such as I assume reads this blog?), so I hope you enjoy it. This was a first draft, sort of stream-of-consciousness, and therefore It is a bit rough, and many more writers and events could have been added, but since I am cutting it out of the book, I’ve not taken the effort.

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

The years of Leo’s life before his accession to the Roman episcopate saw the ongoing dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire as well as intermittent civil war between the empire’s generals. The Vandals had been in Spain since around 410, and when they were driven out, they crossed to Africa. From 429 to 439, they conquered Roman North Africa, taking Carthage in the final year and defeating various Roman armies on the way. In 440, the Vandals raided Sicily. They had been driven out of Spain by Visigoths and Suevi, working in alliance with the Romans. Both of these groups began taking control of Spain, the Visigoths also taking power in southern Gaul. In 436, the Visigoths besieged Narbo but did not take the city. In 439, the Suevi, in Gallaecia in northwestern Spain, expanded their power base, coming to control most of Spain by 441. In 446 was the last Roman campaign in Spain, now divided by Visigoths and Suevi. In Gaul, besides the land being appropriated by Visigoths, a group called the bagaudae rebelled in Armorica in 435. Saxon pirates raided the northern coast of Gaul. Britain was already lost for all intents and purposes by 410. Besides these losses and engagements with non-Roman military groups, western generals were themselves frequently at odds during the reign of Valentinian III. Valentinian’s reign itself began as an eastern campaign to supplant the usurper John.

This image of a troubled early fifth-century West in decline is a persistent one that is not untrue. To demonstrate the social impact of the economic and political hardship of the western Empire in these decades, the work of Salvian of Marseilles, written in the early years of Leo’s pontificate has frequently proven useful, discussing the oppression of the weak and poor by the rich and powerful. Some of Salvian’s observations can be borne out by the letters of Leo the Great, in fact. Alongside this, aristocratic culture in Gaul, Italy, and Spain continued despite the worsening political climate. Gaul is particularly rich in sources for this ongoing aristocratic culture of living in villas, writing letters to familiares; this life is portrayed in the Eucharisticon of Paulinus of Pella. The latter half of the century will see some notable collections of letters, especially that of Sidonius Apollinaris, but also Ruricius of Limoges and others. Therefore, when we want to consider the state of the Roman Empire in the age of Leo, we need to consider not only the important disaster narrative and sources such as Salvian, but also the works of the more comfortable classes, such as Paulinus and Sidonius. Neglecting either will create a distortion. Somehow, both must be kept in mind.

Salvian is not the only ecclesiastical writer in Latin of the first half of the century, and social, economic, and political crisis does not always equal cultural stagnation. Restricting ourselves to the reign of Valentinian III, we cannot miss the fact that the giant of ancient Latin Christianity, Augustine of Hippo, died in 430. In 426 he published his masterpiece De Civitate Dei contra paganos and added material to De Doctrina Christiana and De Trinitate—these three works comprise a sort of Augustinian trilogy. Augustine is not the only Latin Christian writer active in the first decade and a half of Valentinian’s reign. Before leaving Africa, the two immediately pre-Vandal bishops of Carthage, Aurelius and Quodvultdeus, should not be overlooked. Aurelius had been a main figure in the Pelagian Controversy and died around the same time as Augustine; various of his letters survive. Quodvultdeus was a more active writer, producing a particularly fine commentary on the creed. Quodvultdeus was deported by the Vandals in 439 and died in Italy.

In Gaul, the early years of Valentinian’s reign saw two major figures in early Latin monasticism, John Cassian and Vincent of Lérins. Both of them had some relationship against Nestorianism and thus with the story of Leo and theology. But they were both more focussed on the internal, spiritual life. Cassian’s work, for example, is an adaptation for a Latin audience of the spiritual theology of Evagrius of Pontus. Gaul at this period, in religious terms, is most famous for asceticism on the one hand and the predestinarian debate on the other. These two movements within Christian thought are related, for the question cannot escape the person dedicated to a life of askesis, discipline, whether that discipline is what saves him or her, and whether that discipline is itself a product of grace or the ascetic’s own will. To what degree, that is, are we responsible for our own morality and discipline, and to what degree is it the work of God? John Cassian, in Conf. 13, came down somewhere in the middle, seeking—perhaps unsuccessfully—to argue something that allows for both. Prosper of Aquitaine was also active in the predestinarian debate in Gaul as well as being a lay promoter of asceticism himself. Another notable Gallic writer whose career overlap with Leo’s pre-episcopal career include Faustus of Riez (abbot of Lérins, 433-459, bishop of Riez 459-495), who was yet another ascetic involved in the predestinarian debate.

Italy was not unproductive, either. Peter Chrysologus was bishop of Ravenna from 433 to 450. He has left a significant corpus of sermons, and his name alone tells us the esteem he held as a rhetorician, a conscious adaptation of the famous Antiochene preacher, John Chrysostom, who was always well regarded in the Latin West.

Leo’s predecessors in the Roman see dealt with Pelagianism and Nestorianism, both of which figure in Leo’s correspondence. The Pelagian controversy had involved Innocent I and Zosimus, and Celestine I (422-32) obtained a condemnation of Pelagius at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Celestine’s involvement in the Nestorian controversy has recently been argued to have been more independent than previously thought. The standard narrative most of us know is that Cyril began his anti-Nestorian campaign and enlisted Celestine to join him. Celestine supported Cyril at Ephesus and obtained an ecumenical council’s condemnation of Pelagianism in turn. However, George Bevan has recently demonstrated, through a close analysis of the documents associated with the Nestorian controversy, that early in 430, Celestine had already called a local Roman synod and condemned Nestorius before Cyril contacted him. Why was Celestine anti-Nestorian? There is a possibility that it was simply a matter of the dossier being sent to him being quite condemnatory, providing all of the scandalising statements that make Nestorius seem to teach that Christ is two persons. It is also possible that Nestorius was perceived as being himself tainted by Pelagianism. Not only is this a connection that John Cassian makes in De Incarnatione contra Nestorium, but Nestorius’ friendliness with Theodore of Mopsuestia was known in Rome, and Theodore was himself tainted by Pelagianism because of his own friendliness towards Pelagius and Caelestius years previously. When both factors are taken into play, it comes as no surprise that Celestine acted independently of Cyril. It also turns him into an agent in Mediterranean geo-ecclesiology and not a passive observer and responder to the agency of others.

Xystus III (432-440) was Leo’s immediate predecessor. He witnessed the ongoing progress of the Nestorian debate after Ephesus, and letters he sent to Cyril and other eastern bishops after the reunion of Cyril with John of Antioch in 433 show us that the bishop of Rome was still taking an interest in these faraway events. Moreover, his rededication of the Liberian Basilica as Santa Maria Maggiore in a prominent location on the Esquiline Hill also demonstrates his commitment to anti-Nestorian, Ephesine Christology, for the rallying cry of anti-Nestorian polemic was the term Theotokos, God-bearer, usually Latinised as genetrix dei.

This is the context when, in 440, Xystus III died while Leo was on a diplomatic mission to Gaul to reconcile the general Aëtius and Albinus, Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls.

When does the year start?

I’ve blogged here a couple of times about ancient time-reckoning, once about consular formulae, and another time about indictions. Today, I was looking through the collection of sermons preached by Leo the Great, subject of my Ph.D. dissertation. Leo’s sermons were published by him as a collection and they were organised by which feast of the Christian year they were preached. Leo is a thematic, not expository, preacher. The collection begins with the commemoration of his accession to the Roman episcopate on 29 September 440, with sermons from 440, 441, 443, 444, and 445. It ends with the September fast, with sermons spanning 441-458, which is almost his whole career as bishop of Rome. They are organised in order of when they occur in the year.

What does this have to do with dating?

Well, the indiction cycle starts on 23 September. So Leo’s sermon collection takes you through a full liturgical year — starting with the indiction.

One would expect one of two other situations. Either Leo would begin with Advent, since that is currently when the western liturgical year begins, or he would begin with 1 January since that is when the Roman civic calendar begins with consuls taking office. After all, he dated his letters by consular year.

There may be something here. On the other hand, maybe he started the collection on 29 September since that is his accession date.