Category Archives: Ancient World

Coming to grips with late antique Christianity

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

I once heard an anecdote about a colleague who (I think) said that Constantine’s revisions of the imperial postal system were more significant than his conversion to Christianity. This may, in fact, be true, depending on how you define your terms. However, it is the case that, overall, coming to grips with Christianity will help you understand late antiquity better than knowing the imperial postal system.

If you begin with the Tetrarchy and Diocletian, you will need to have some grasp of who Christians are and why the Roman government disliked them for understanding the persecution.

If you begin earlier with the Third Century Crisis and are interested in Latin literature, the fact that we have so little Latin literature from the second century will throw you into the arms of Cyprian of Carthage and his letters.

Beginning with Constantine there is a conversion of the upper classes, and these are the people who produce or for whom are produced most of the stuff that survives from antiquity — fancy houses, poems, philosophical treatises. Their religion is thus not inconsequential. And they eventually do become Christians — we can learn about the last pagans of Rome (to cite the title of a book by Alan Cameron)

And if you are interested in Later Latin Literature, Christianity is all over the place. Some of the greatest poets of Late Antiquity write explicitly religious poetry. It would be a shame to study the world of late antiquity (to cite the title of a Peter Brown book) and miss out on Prudentius and the other Christian epicists. Likewise the Greek verse of Gregory of Nazianzus, or the sublime Syriac poetry of Ephrem and his luminous eye (to cite a Sebastian Brock title).

While the rise of western Christendom (to cite Peter Brown again) is a major feature of the study of the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity (Averil Cameron this time), I admit one should be perspicacious. There is a lot to grapple with.

Consider the realm of texts: Augustine of Hippo is the ancient Latin author with the largest surviving corpus, for one thing. We have more Christian letter collections from Late Antiquity than the non-Christian ones from preceding centuries. Indeed, Christians love books — sermons, letters, poems, long theological tractates, canon law documents, apologies, polemics, biographies, hagiographies, liturgies, and so forth, flow forth in abundance in Late Antiquity in Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic.

Material culture is also a big realm, from Spain and even Britain in the West to Mesopotamia in the East, the Roman Empire and its Persian neighbour has its fair share of physical remains, some of them the large, mosaic-encrusted churches of Ravenna, others the foundations of churches in Salamis on Cyprus. This is not to mention the myriad smaller objects of Christian origin — ivories, icons, Bibles, Bible covers, communion vessels, etc.

Moreover, Christianity is a complex phenomenon. Are we looking at the beliefs and writings and practices of the educated elite? What about the urban poor? What about different modes of belief amongst different Christian bodies? Bishops? Laypeople? Rome? Antioch? Nisibis?

In fact, there’s so much, whether you like Christianity or not, how could you help but take an interest in it if you’re interested in Late Antiquity?

The Aesthetics of Greek and Latin

Chancellor Gorkon

Chancellor Gorkon famously said, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon,” in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It is a trope that is expressed about basically all literature — you cannot appreciate something in a translation. Something is always lost in translation, even if a translator is capable of conveying the same, precise meaning as the original text.

One of the elements lost is the original aesthetic of the text. The sheer pleasure of reading well-wrought verbal artistry is entirely untranslatable. Anaphora, anacolouthon, assonance, alliteration, not to mention other devices that don’t begin with A are rarely, if ever, capable of reproduction in a translation. Puns are well-nigh impossible. Poetic meter and prose rhythm are almost inevitably sacrificed.

I was reminded of this recently while teaching Theocritus. It has been a few years since I last read Theocritus in the original Greek, and I find myself enjoying him much more in Greek than I had in my more recent reading of him in English translation. The aesthetic pleasures of Theocritus are in some ways, of course, those of any poet. Reading dactylic hexameters aloud, for example, has an aural significance that nothing else provides (even things equally pleasant are simply different). And then you meet his use of literary devices — playing with words, repeating various sounds across several lines of poetry as a means of tying together the concepts in a poem in a way that English, with a different vocabulary, cannot do with the same meanings.

There is also the pleasure of reading Doric Greek. Ancient Greek, if you were not aware, exists in multiple dialects. The dialect of Theocritus is primarily Doric. This means that he has certain versions of common words that different from other dialects — poti for pros, for instance. He also frequently uses long alpha where the Greek you learn in class uses eta. Some of his pronouns are different, etc. This use of a different dialect provides both an aesthetic and philological pleasure. His Greek ‘sounds’ different from Homer’s, although he does use some Homeric vocabulary and forms; it sounds different from Plato’s, as well.

Finally, part of the pleasure of reading verse written in inflected languages is the fact that word order matters a lot less than in English. As one of my students calls it, every once in a while Theocritus gives us a ‘Happy Grammar Fun Time’ — he will delay a crucial word in a sentence through enjambment so that it is both the final word of the sentence and the first word of a line of poetry. Not only this, in one of the occasions he does this, that final word of the sentence is separated from the rest of the sentence by a refrain. Without the word, as you would read the sentence naturally, it has one meaning. Suddenly, a new meaning appears after the refrain.

You cannot do this in English.

It is hard to explain the sheer pleasure that comes from reading literature in its original language, but it is a truly pleasurable aesthetic experience to read Theocritus in Greek, or Virgil in Latin, or any author in the language he or she originally used.

Teaching Later Latin

Nothing says ‘Later Roman Empire’ like giving the Tetrarchs a hug

Before I get going on this post, I feel obliged to state that I have loved teaching the “core” canon of Classics this year — in Latin: Horace and Ovid, in Greek: Theocritus, in English translation: Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and a variety of Greek authors for Greek and Roman Myth (Hesiod, the tragedians, Homer, the Homeric Hymns, Apollodorus, et al, et al.). Nevertheless, teaching one’s own narrower focus brings with it a special pleasure all its own.

Last term, I got to teach, as literature, a selection of Ausonius’ verse epistles to Paulinus in Latin class, and Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae in English in Latin Epic. For one week, all I taught was “later” Latin literature. I put “later” in quotation marks because very often, what we mean by “later Latin literature” ends in the Early Middle Ages, at which point Latin was still really only in middle age (ha). Anyway, it was an exciting week.

First of all, Late Antiquity is where I have been most thoroughly invested for many years now. My research may range as late as the 1400s, and my background has certainly prepared me for teaching Aeschylus or the world of Augustan Rome, but the world, history, culture, and authors of Late Antiquity are where I am most comfortable. It is a pleasure to teach from a position of being comfortable with the context and the material in a deep way.

Second, I can bring my research to bear on the texts. I can say that ‘such and such’ is a feature of later Latin without recourse to grammars or histories of Latin. I know it is because I have seen it with frequency in a number of different authors from the fourth through sixth centuries. I can comment on the piling up of superlatives, for example, as being part of contemporary courtesy. Amongst bishops, even your worst enemy is dilectissimus frater — ‘most beloved brother’.

The third point is likewise related: I got to share with people the things I have learned, and that itself is a great delight. So I talked about how the quotation from Paulinus in Ausonius, about the names of different kings, is itself an example of the jewelled style (and pointed them to Michael Roberts, The Jeweled Style). I talked about how allusion works in these authors, and the kind of learned game they are playing with their readers, especially Ausonius (referencing Aaron Pelttari, The Space that Remains). Teaching Claudian, I got to talk about the prefaces and what they mean poetically and metapoetically, and this was great. There was a certain amount of allusion and intertextuality throughout it all (says my wife, ‘Don’t you lecture on that all the time?).

The fourth point is pedagogical: I got to expand their idea of Latin literature. For the Latin students, they saw that grammar and vocabulary can remain ‘classical’ while style goes in new directions. They were thus given a window in both the difference and similarity of later Latin with its classical forebears. Most Latin students never read much of anything later than Apuleius (if that). Thus, they were exposed to a greater breadth of Latin than is usually on offer, and I think this will only help them, even if the rest of their lives they read nothing but ‘classical’ Latin authors.

For the epic students, it was much the same. They got to see that Latin literature doesn’t just suddenly stop. Indeed, one  of my wider aims throughout the course was tying together disparate strands of Latin and world literature. Not only did they read Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Claudian, they also had lectures talking about Livius Andronicus, Ennius, Statius, et al., and I tied in not only Latin epic’s relationship with Greek epic but also with themes in Gilgamesh and Mahabharata. In terms of reception, I brought Virgil to the early moderns. So Claudian was actually central to part of my wider pedagogy, which is: (although) Virgil is amazing (and you should know him), and these other epics area part of the same poetic tradition or human experience.

The back of my Oxford Classical Text of Ausonius boasts that there are over 100 volumes in the series. Later Latin literature, even when restricted to the later 100s to 800s, encompasses far more Literature than that. It’s worth introducing students to it.

Leo in Ferrara and Florence in the 1400s

Pope Eugenius IV – he probably owned a manuscript of Leo, too

I recently submitted the manuscript of my book about manuscripts of Leo the Great. As I was revising it from thesis version to book version, I couldn’t help but notice those manuscripts whose owners or scribes we can name. There are several potentially interesting leads one could follow — Lanfranc of Canterbury, William of Malmesbury, the early network of Cistercians — but the one that stood out to me this time was from the millennium after Leo’s episcopate — not merely a large number of fifteenth-century manuscripts, but manuscripts that belonged to Basilios Bessarion, Nicholas of Cusa (Kues), Domenico Capranica, and Juan de Torquemada.

These men were all cardinals.

The first two are the most famous today. Bessarion was a ‘convert’ from the Greek side to the Latin side in the debates over unification that *almost* succeeded in the 1430s and 40s. Nicholas of Cusa (from Kues in Germany) is a famous humanist, theologian, and writer on matters to do with church constitution; he was originally on the side of a group devoted to having a series of church councils with higher authority than the pope (so-called conciliarists), but he also ‘converted’ to the papal side.

Capranica was also a humanist and theologian, this time from Italy. The Spaniard Juan de Torquemada’s name may be familiar because of his nephew, Tomás de Torquemada, first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition and model for Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in the parable told by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov.

You are probably now very excited (ha). Well, besides being cardinals, these men were all at the church council that started at Ferrara in 1438 and then, because of the unhealthy conditions there, moved to Florence in 1439. In fact, Capranica’s copy of Leo’s sermons and letters was written while he was in Ferrara early in 1438. Nicholas of Cusa owned a manuscript of the sermons and letters and another of the sermons that also contained some of his own works written in his own hand. Moreover, I am given to understand that Nicholas quotes Leo throughout his writings.

You may now wonder what went on at Ferrara-Florence that I find the interest in Leo of these cardinals significant. Well, this council is momentous for two reasons, and it really depends who teaches you about it. When I was first taught about this council in my Master’s degree, it was in the context of a class about councils generally (mostly western), and by a scholar who’s interest was Early Modern. We learned about Ferrara-Florence and its opposition to the rival Council of Basel that had been officially ended by Eugenius IV but that decided to depose him and keep rolling, anyway. The people in Basel are termed ‘conciliarists’ in ecclesiastical history, and there is often subtext in talking about that they are (imagined to be) a group that could have held Reformation at bay if only they hadn’t mishandled Eugenius.

The second time I learned about this council was in a class on Byzantine Theology, and the main thrust was its attempt(s) at reunion with the Eastern churches, the debate on filioque, and why it ultimately failed.

Bessarion represents a Greek who came over to the Latin side, Nicholas a conciliarist who went over to the papal side.

There are two ways one is likely to consider this quartet of cardinals and their books of Leo, and both are probably right.

First: They are drawn to Leo because he supports things they support. At these general councils, it was important to have antiquity on your side. Leo the Great is the first bishop of Rome to put forth an articulate theology of Petrine primacy. Exactly what you want in debates with conciliarists and Greeks! Moreover, he was on explicitly good terms with the Emperors Marcian and Leo I, so that’s good when talking to the Greeks. Just look how Marcian treated him! (Well, maybe not too closely — some of the letters are less reverent than others.) Moreover, it is clear that the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon is not gaining traction until Leo gives his approval — evidence (one can imagine the argument) that popes are higher than councils. He also rules on various matters of faith and life that the Latin, papal side was in favour of.

Second: Having read Leo, someone like Nicholas finds some persuasive arguments for papal primacy. Having read Leo, someone like Bessarion believes that the unity of the church hinges on papal-imperial cooperation.

Both are probably true, to some extent. Your interests shape which authors you are pointed to. Someone probably told Capranica that Leo was worth a read, so he had a copy made while at the council. And the books you read shape what you believe.

And so, 998 years after he was elected to the apostolic see of St Peter, Leo found an interested and engaged readership as the history of the church marched on.

Looking back at books of 2018

In 2018, I finished reading 56 books that were not picture/story books or board books. I do not know how many picture/story books and board books I read. My son owns 49 board books; I have read all of them multiple times this year. Of the non-board book picture/story books, I read 36, but we have more that I did not read. And there are the library books, books at other people’s houses, books at churches that I read along the way.

As usual, a book that I completed means that I finished the entirety of that which is bound between two covers. Some are books that I started before 2018. And many texts and books were read that were not read in toto. For example, none of Leo the Great’s letters are here because I did not read any of them bound together as a single volume. And many articles, poems, and other non-books were read.

The first book I completed was The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by R. C. Blockley. This is the introductory volume, not the texts with translation.

The final book I completed was volume one of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Claudian, ed. and trans. Maurice Platnauer.

Of the 56 books of 2018, here are the stats by category/genre:

  • Ancient texts in translation: 11, of which 3 were ‘patristic’
  • Ancient texts in the original: 1 — Horace, Epistles, Book 1, with commentary by Roland Mayer
  • Medieval texts in translation: 3, unless we count Pseudo-Dionysius and Justinian as medieval, then subtract two from ‘ancient’ and ‘patristic’, then add them to medieval.
  • Scholarly works about ancient subjects: 5
  • Scholarly works about medieval subjects: 6
  • Other history: 2 (The Mammoth Book of Pirates and Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree)
  • Works about Christian theology/spirituality not already counted: 9
  • Memoirs: 1 (Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean)
  • Novels: 10 (this includes The Silmarillion to make life easier)
  • Young-adult novels (already counted in the 10): 3
  • Historical Fiction: 1 adult (Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy), 2 YA
  • Books of non-ancient, non-medieval poetry: 1 (Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti)
  • Graphic Novels: 1 (Infinity War by Jim Starlin)
  • Souvenir guide books: 3 (+ a book about the Mildenhall Treasure already classed as ‘scholarly works about ancient subjects)
  • Books in German: 1 (Patzold, Steffen. 2015. Gefälschtes Recht aus dem Frühmittelalter: Untersuchungen zur Herstellung und Überlieferung der pseudoisidorischen Dekretalen. Heidelberg.)
  • Plays: 2 (Euripides’ Bacchae and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child)
  • Books that defy my classifications; 1 (Pieces from a Broken Land by Victoria Fifield; memoir? art? both.)
  • Books written by friends: 4 (including the above, 2 books by another friend, one of which is not yet in print, the other of which is Dayspring MacLeod, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, and Aaron Pelttari, The Space that Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity)

I turned 35 this year. The 35th book I finished was Mayer’s commentary on Horace, Epistles, Book I.

There are fifty-two weeks in a year. The fifty-second book I finished was The World of Medieval Monasticism by Gert Melville. I read another history of monasticism, The Story of Monasticism by Greg Peters. Melville’s is better in my opinion, but Peters’ is probably better for normal people.

Half of 56 is 28. The 28th book was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid, Book VI — I really, really liked it.

The rereads were The Lord of the Rings, read as three volumes (so counted as three books) and A. D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I also reread the Aeneid, but this was my first time reading Frederick Ahl’s translation and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI.

The most-read author was J. R. R. Tolkien (4) followed by Andrew Louth (2) and Dayspring MacLeod (2).

This was the year I finally read The Silmarillion and Pride and Prejudice.

Are we reading Virgil backwards? (The headless body of Priam)

Pompey’s head

I have been reading some very good essays on Virgil today, and one fact that my students keep bringing up is that the headless corpse of Priam on the beach is an allusion to Pompey’s headless corpse on the beach of Egypt. This surprised me, since I was fairly certain that Pompey’s headless corpse in Egypt is, in fact, a detail from Lucan, a good century after Virgil, that alludes, therefore, back to Virgil.

So I did a little digging.

The passage of Virgil in question is Aeneid 2.557-8:

iacet ingens litore truncus, / auulsumque umeris caput et sine nomine corpus.

A great trunk lies on the shore, a head torn from shoulders and a body without a name.

The alluding passage in Lucan (first encountered by me in what is now a distant memory, Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext; I even forget what Hinds says) is Civil War 1.685-6:

hunc ego, fluminea deformis truncus harena / qui iacet, agnosco.

I recognise him, who lies on the river’s sands, a misshapen trunk.

The parallels in the Latin make the allusion to Virgil in Lucan fairly clear. What I wondered was how we came to the inverse allusion — that Virgil’s image of Priam’s corpse is of Pompey’s. I did some digging, and it seems that because Pompey was beheaded at the mouth of the Nile and controlled Asia, and because Priam’s body is on the shore and he also controlled Asia, Virgil is making such an allusion.

According to The Virgil Encyclopedia (from Wiley), under the entry ‘Pompey’, Virgil is alluding to Asinius Pollio here. Unhelpfully, Asinius Pollio’s account of the civil war does not survive.

The first person I know of to say that Virgil is making Priam into Pompey in this passage is Servius, the great late antique commentator on Virgil. Due to his access to things now lost to us, we tend to believe Servius. Servius does not give us a source for his belief that Virgil is implicitly making Priam into Pompey. There is, in fact, nothing in the content of Servius that would make us take this line of reasoning beyond our trust in Servius.

Of course, we want to take this line of reasoning because we are in the age of the ‘pessimistic’ or ‘anti-Augustan’ reading of Virgil, the reading that deeply problematises the killing of Turnus, that puts into the forefront of our reading of Book 6 the facts that the golden bough does not come easily and that Aeneas and the Sybil return to the land of the living through the gate of ivory, the gate designed for false dreams. Or we remember Dido and, along with St Augustine, we weep. We are also the age that notes that the first simile of the epic, comparing Neptune with a statesman who calms mobs with a word, is not actually referring to Augustus, who calmed civil strife with war, and we remember that Neptune was the patron of Pompey and of Antony — the enemies of Caesar and Augustus, respectively.

But what if Servius is wrong, and what if he’s wrong because somehow we’ve read the allusion backwards?

What if, that is, the real allusion has been Lucan all along? What if Virgil is not comparing the headless corpse of Priam to the headless corpse of Pompey? What if Lucan’s allusion has so much power that it has become the Virgilian intertext? Thus, we cannot help but see Priam as Pompey after reading Lucan, even if that was not Virgil’s intention.

Or — what if there’s a detail I’ve missed? Perhaps I’ve missed another Pompey intertext to which Virgil is explicitly alluding. Correct me if I’m wrong.