Category Archives: Literature

Some reasons to read Beowulf

Here are just a few reasons why you might want to read Beowulf. First, it is a famous example of literature from the Early Middle Ages. Second, it represents English-language literature in its infancy. Third, it has had impacted modern literature since its rediscovery.

The Early Middle Ages, although politically fractured and certainly with a lower standard of living than the Later Roman Empire or the High Middle Ages, are a period of great creativity and transformation within western Europe, as the post-Roman world resettles itself into something new. Beowulf is, in many ways, indicative of the Early Middle Ages. Culturally, the Early Middle Ages see the introduction of literacy and Christianity to more and more ‘barbarians’—the English, Irish, Scots, Dutch, various continental Germanic peoples, Danes, and more. As a poem about the pagan past being told from a Christian perspective, Beowulf encapsulates the early medieval world, not simply by showing us aspects of Anglo-Saxon society (the beerhall with the lord bestowing gifts upon his thegns—the world of Sutton Hoo), but of European society more broadly (the transformation of barbarian pagans into literate Christians).

Beowulf is one of the earliest long-form English poems. It shows, in a certain way, the foundations of English literature. This is a lofty claim; Beowulf certainly exerted no direct influence on Chaucer, who certainly had closer English poets as well as French and Latin literature to hand. Nonetheless, Beowulf was written in the English vernacular, composed from the stuff of the oral legends that existed as part of the cultural inheritance the English brought with them from the Continent. Its intrinsic interest, then, is that it is a so-called ‘primary’ epic, such as Gilgamesh, the Homeric epics, and The Song of Roland, as opposed to Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, Dante, or Ariosto. It depicts a pre-literate, warrior society, yet is itself cast in a beautiful, lyric form. Beowulf carries with it not just daring adventure and heroism, but also the hope of heaven and high ideals of loyalty and honour. These are ideals that are known to capture the hearts and minds of most people. Reading Beowulf shows us English poetry when England was barely English.

Finally, Beowulf has a strong influence on modern literature and art. Like most, if not all, early medieval vernacular literature, it lay dormant for many years. But nationalism, romanticism, and the rise of vernacular philology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that this Old English epic has found new life, being ushered back into the canon of English-language classics. Immediately, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien, Oxford’s first Professor of Anglo-Saxon and critic of Beowulf comes to mind—especially since the publication of his translation with notes in 2014. It is widely known that Tolkien was influenced by Beowulf in crafting his fantasies, and The Hobbit in particular. From my own experience, many young people have been ushered into classic literature through the twofold gateway of Tolkien and Lewis. Beowulf also inspired the later portions of Eaters of the Dead (filmed as 1999’s The 13th Warrior) when Michael Crichton takes the story beyond Ibn Fadlan’s surviving narrative.

Furthermore, modern adaptations have made Beowulf a known entity, but—like the famous Victorian trio of horror stories, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—very little read. It has been unfaithfully adapted multiple times for the cinema, as well as a more faithful animated version with the voice talents of Derek Jacobi and Joseph Fiennes. In print, John Gardner has given us Grendel, telling the tale from the perspective of the monster, and Gareth Hinds produced a vivid and captivating graphic novel. One of my favourite adaptations of Beowulf is the stilt play! There has also been an anthology of short fiction about the character inspired by the epic.

So, if you take C S Lewis’s advice and read an old book after every new book, why not pick up Beowulf next time? I’ve read and recommend the translations of Liuzza, Crossley-Holland, and Tolkien, but I expect Heaney’s is more than worth your time.

The Virgilian tradition

The famous 3rd-century mosaic of Virgil from the Bardo Museum, Tunis, Tunisia

Some time ago, back when I was a Master’s student, I wrote a little piece called You Should Read the Iliad, and then another called simply The Odyssey. I finally wrote my third in the series, Why read the Aeneid of Virgil? in July of 2018. Having written about the Age of Augustus, and how we who study later Rome also know earlier Rome, my mind keeps circling back to the Virgilian tradition, a vast literary heritage that begins as soon as Virgil’s work is produced. Virgil is an instant classic, as seen in Propertius 2.34.59-66:

My pleasure to languish with yesterday’s garlands,
Whom the sure-aiming god touched to the bone;
For Virgil the power to tell of Actium’s shores
In Phoebus’ guard and Caesar’s gallant ships,
Who now wakes to life the arms of Troy’s Aeneas
And walls cast down on Lavinian shores.
Surrender, writers of Rome, surrender, Greeks!
Something greater than the Iliad is born.
-Trans. A. J. Boyle, ‘The Canonic Text: Virgil’s Aeneid’, in his own Roman Epic, p. 79

For Late Antiquity, Virgil is the single most important Latin poet. This is true not only for the obvious writers, such as Servius with his commentary on Virgil, or Macrobius’ Saturnalia, nor only for the poets — Virgilian intertexts are inevitable in Claudian — but even for those men dubbed ‘Fathers of the Church’ — Virgilian quotations and allusions abound in Augustine of Hippo. I’ve not read much Jerome yet, but I suspect the same will prove true. This use of Virgil as a source of wisdom is a Latin parallel of how Greeks treated Homer.

The Virgilian tradition, then, is vast . I have beside me The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years by Jan M. Ziolkowski and Michael C. J. Putnam. It is 1024 pages long, not including the endmatter. Here are some highlights …

The Virgilian Middle Ages

The explicit intertext, signalled in its title, of Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus (1182) is the invective of Claudian. Yet here we also find various Virgilian intertexts, not to mention an explicit naming of Virgil.

Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide (1100s), makes use of Dido and Aeneas.

But the most famous medieval reader of Virgil is the Supreme Poet of Italy, Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno has Virgil as guide not only of the character Dante in the poem but of the poet Dante who wrote the poem.

Where else to turn in the 1000-year medieval reception of Virgil? Well, at the very least Petrarch (1304-74), whose works are littered with Virgil, and Chaucer, particularly The House of Fame which draws on Virgil’s own personification of Fama in Aeneid 4.

The Early Modern Virgil

For the early modern era as for the Middle Ages, Virgil was very much a powerful presence, in both Latin and vernacular literature, such as the Portuguese Lusiads by Camões, the Italian Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato, and in English, Milton’s Paradise Lost.

It should come as no great shock that various aspects of the Virgilian tradition are also in Ariosto, Orlando Furioso. Besides his ongoing use of epic similes and set-piece descriptions (ecphrasis in the singular, ecphraseis in the plural), Ariosto has a number of scenes modelled on or inspired by Virgil. Early in the epic, for example, Bradamant is dropped into a cave by a mortal enemy of her family. The cave turns out to be Merlin’s tomb, and a sorceress dwells there, who proceeds to show Bradamant the parade of her descendants — including Ariosto’s patron, whom Ariosto compares to Augustus, saying that he even has his own Virgil! (Quite the boast.)

Virgil Today

Sometimes it may feel like the ancient Classics have fallen on hard times. But new translations of the Aeneid keep appearing, including the potent translation of Book VI by Seamus Heaney. Moreover, epic retellings find their ways onto our shelves, if less often onto our screens — I think particularly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s masterful novel Lavinia.

One potential reception of Virgil that is, in fact, disputed, is Battlestar Galactica, which both Peggy Heller and Charlotte Higgins argue has Virgilian elements. Chris Jones’ arguments against the two are not entirely convincing. Intertextuality is not the same as adaptation; Ronald D. Moore could very well have had some basic Virgilian-Aeneid structures in mind without creating a perfect sci-fi adaptation. I like the idea, that is, of Virgil as intertext, if not as inspiration or source for BSG. It would, in fact, be entirely fitting for the poet whose masterpiece is in many ways the ultimate intertext of both Homeric epics and the Latin epic of Ennius to be used as an intertext for TV shows today.

What I want to see in the Virgilian tradition is a good graphic novel — Roy Thomas gave us The Iliad and Odyssey for Marvel; Gareth Hinds, after a splendid Beowulf, has also given us The Iliad and Odyssey. Could one of them give us the Aeneid as well? Please? (I know nothing about Agrimbau and Sosa’s — is it worthy?)

Scholars of later Rome know earlier Rome, too

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

I was thinking about how a certain amount of knowledge of earlier Rome is an important ingredient in being able to interpret the Later Roman Empire and the fall of its western portion. As my previous post about the Age of Augustus observes, knowing Augustus helps you interpret Constantine.

This point illustrates itself very well in Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. In order to demonstrate that the sort of complex society and economy that typified the Roman world ceased to exist as a result of the dismemberment and manslaughter of the western Roman Empire at the hands of invading barbarians, Ward-Perkins had to marshal the evidence for just such a complex society. By showing what sort of economy and standards of living people had before the fall of the Roman Empire, Ward-Perkins is able to show us the final years of Late Antiquity and on into the Early Middle Ages were less economically stable with a lower standard of living.

But you need the evidence from earlier, imperial Rome to be able to do that.

For example, to discuss common, everyday literacy in the Roman Empire, you need evidence of common, everyday literacy in the Roman Empire. And Ward-Perkins finds it, from Pompeii to Britain.

If your concern is not the fall of Rome, the rest of the Roman world is still important for understanding Late Antiquity. One of the realities that stands out in late antique Latin verse, for example, is its awareness that it is not ‘classical’. Even if they might at times wish to rival the greats of the past, the poets of the Later Roman Empire know that they live in a different age. There is perceptible distance between them and Virgil, and they make it known.

If you don’t know Virgil, it is much harder to interpret Prudentius and Claudian, let alone Macrobius.

If you don’t know Cicero, Jerome is harder. If you don’t know Livy, Augustine’s City of God is interpreted differently. And on it goes.

Furthermore, Elsner’s art history book Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph makes an important point about the monumental art of Late Antiquity — it has models and precursors from the High Empire, at least as early as Antoninus Pius. That is to say — reading Late Antiquity as a hermetically-sealed cultural entity will miss the connections it has with the Roman past.

I do hope this is no surprise for anyone else who studies Roman history! It would be a great shame if colleagues who study Republican Rome or the empire from Augustus to the third century thought we knew nothing of those epochs of the grand Roman story. It is also worth mulling over if you want to get into the history and culture of the Later Roman Empire — how well do you know what came before it? This, I think, has sometimes contributed to some of the clashes over interpreting the fall of the West.

Anyway, we late Romanists enjoy the rest of Roman history! It’s part of our education and training, essential to our research.

The Age of Augustus

Writing job applications makes you think not only about what you are good at but about what you’d like to do. I have always wanted a position that would allow me to research ancient Christianity and the Later Roman Empire while teaching Roman history and Latin. This includes crafting a course on the age of Augustus. I like the age of Augustus. Here I am with the Prima Porta Augustus (I really did come close to crying upon seeing it):

Why the age of Augustus?

Augustus was the ‘first emperor of Rome’. He blazed onto the scene at age 19 in 44 BC when his great-uncle Julius Caesar was assassinated and adopted him as his son posthumously. He consolidated power unto himself by 31 BC and acquired the title ‘Augustus’ from the Senate in 27 BC. He then proceeded to rule the Roman Empire until AD 14. Politically, what sets Augustus off from people like Uncle Julius, besides his longevity, was his formal acquisition of powers, authorities, and titles from the Senate. He didn’t simply aim for something like ‘Dictator for Life’. He gathered into himself a variety of constitutional powers that no single man had previously held, and his successors managed to hold onto them, turning Rome into a monarchy. This is a reason for such a course.

As a result of this, and here my late antique expertise adds weight to the importance of teaching the early empire, Augustus becomes sort of a ‘model emperor’. Consider the image above, of the beardless emperor, as opposed to:

Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, British Museum

Augustus’ beardlessness thus makes Constantine’s ‘look’ of particular political importance:

Augustus boasted that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Monuments from his era can still be seen in the city of Rome, such as the Ara pacis. Besides such monumental art and the shift in the city’s grandeur, a lot of great surviving Roman art comes from the Augustan era, such as the wondrous frescoes from his wife, Livia’s, villa, now on display in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. Art and architecture from the age of Augustus, then, provide another reason.

The Laocoon Group, now in the Vatican Museums, may date to this period

Furthermore, this same era, from 44ish BC to 14ish AD is a productive time in Latin literature — at least, Latin literature that survives. In prose, we have here the last years of Cicero and the work of Sallust, Livy, and the later works of Cornelius Nepos and Varro. Poetry is a larger domain, however — all of the famous elegists, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid, as well as the lyric achievement of Horace, not to mention the great epic poet Virgil.

A course on more than just politics, then

Take these elements, couple them with studies of ‘daily life’, and a course on the age of Augustus would be a wonderful glimpse of the Roman world as it existed for 58 years. The political narrative could be woven together with art and poetry, and how these interacted with each other could be part of the dialogue between professor and students.

Imagining this as a course with two lecture slots per week, I would divide it between narratives bringing history forward from the Ides of March 44 BC to the fourteenth day before the Kalends of September AD 14 (August 19). Parallel to the narrative lectures would be sessions combining lectures with discussions, moving through the art, architecture, and literature.

The primary learning outcome would be to see the transformation of the Roman world from the self-embattled Republic to the Early Empire, seeing Augustus and the culture that thrived during his reign in context. It would provide a background to understanding the rest of Roman history as well as later imperial aspirers, such as Charlemagne whose biographer Einhard used the biography of Augustus by Suetonius as a model.

Seamus Heaney and the Classics

I am reading Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (1991), right now. I am not generally enamoured of 20th-century poetry, but Heaney I like. His use of language is rich in its apparent simplicity, and somehow ordinary life becomes beautiful in his poetic mode.

While reading this book, I cannot but think of T. S. Eliot’s little booklet, The Classics and the Man of Letters, itself originally an address. The main thrust of Eliot’s booklet is that someone involved in writing English literature should be invested in the predecessors of English literature, being part of the ongoing tradition of literature — and this includes the Classics, Latin literature in particular. A good point, if we consider the educational background of most English poets before the 20th century — for even Chesterton studied Latin in school.

Reading Heaney makes one appreciate this idea of Eliot’s, given his allusions. Indeed, the volume begins with a translation of the golden bough passage from Aeneid VI (all of which he would later translate; I recommend his translation). The book also has its references to Homer (I love the phrase, ‘I swim in Homer’; I’ve swum in Homer, myself).

Heaney’s intertextual world, though, is not only Classical, not only those things he would have been taught at school. He also has various biblical allusions, allusions to Norse myth, and references to Irish history, culture, literature, besides one poem where he encounters Larkin’s ghost (called his ‘shade’ — an allusion to Virgil) which quotes Dante to him. And the volume closes with a translation of Dante, in fact.

There is undoubtedly much on the Irish and modern English verse side of this book that I miss. But there is much I grasp, regardless. And here is the interesting thing about a poet like Heaney. I appreciate the classical, biblical, Norse allusions. But I can appreciate his manipulation of the English language and his skill as a versifier without them.

That’s what makes a good poet. You can have all the allusions and intertexts you want, but if the reader who doesn’t grasp them does not appreciate your verse, there is a good chance you have not necessarily produced something of quality.

Study Later Latin!

Codex Amiatinus, portrait of Ezra (Cassiodorus?), folio 5r (c. 700, based on older Italian Bible)

One of the many interesting facts found in Jürgen Leonhardt, Latin: Story of a World Language (read my review), is that about 80% of surviving ancient Latin texts are from the late 200s to the mid-500s. The sheer quantity of texts, then, makes Later Latin literature appealing, doesn’t it?

The other 20% of surviving ancient Latin texts cover about 500 years of literary history — those are the Latin texts we are all most likely to study: Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Horace, Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, Lucan, Suetonius, Tacitus, and others, including those fragmentary poets of the Republic such as Ennius.

When you think about those who study English literature,  not only do these Latin classics not add up to a very large quantity of texts in comparison, they are also among the most studied texts in the world. Everyone who ever studied Latin with seriousness, whether a Ciceronian so harshly criticised by Erasmus, Erasmus himself, or, say, Aelred of Rievaulx, read Cicero.

So we should keep reading Cicero (there’s more to that argument, but that’s for later).

But Cicero has been analysed, edited, commented upon, translated, and so forth a lot.

Leo the Great, on the other hand, has 23 letters that have received no edition since 1753, and I am contemplating writing the first commentary on the whole corpus of letters.

Not only is Later Latin relatively understudied: It’s vast! Here’s but a sample of people as they pass into my mind:

Lactantius, Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Ausonius, Ambrose, Symmachus, Augustine, Prudentius, Sedulius, Leo I, Innocent I, Celestine I, various other popes, Caesarius of Arles, Peter Chrysologus, Quodvultdeus, Prosper of Aquitaine, Ammianus Marcellinus, Hydatius, Priscian, Donatus, Servius, Macrobius, Claudian, Porfyrius, Boethius, the legal work of Justinian

The list could and does go on. We have poetry of multiple genres (including epic and some experimental stuff), history of multiple genres, biography, letters, sermons, speeches, grammar books, commentaries on classical poets, commentaries on the Bible, theological treatises, philosophical texts, autobiography, monastic rules, and more.

If we extend our dates to around 800, as the much anticipated Cambridge History of Later Latin Literature will, then we also get Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, Aldhelm, Bede, some lovely Hiberno-Latin literature, and more!

There’s something for everyone in later Latin literature, and a lot of it remains untranslated, or poorly translated, or only available in expensive translations. So learn some Latin and go read it!

Robert E. Howard and Ariosto

When I was a teenager, I bought a copy of The Essential Conan as a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy book club. This anthology of classic Robert E. Howard Conan stories came complete with a poster of Conan wielding an axe, about to cut off the head of a serpent. Slinking in the background is an almost totally nude woman. Before putting the poster up, I honest-to-goodness cut out a paper dress to put over the mostly naked woman.

So, basically, your average, run-of-the-mill Conan picture.

I was reminded of this poster recently, reading my Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s Italian Renaissance epic, Orlando Furioso. The cover depicts Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, mounted on a winged steed (bird? hippogriff? I don’t know yet), lancing a dragon from atop his mount. Angelica is nude:

This is, as I have alluded to above, standard Conan cover material: Naked (or mostly naked) woman being rescued from a monster by a hero with weapons. Ingres might paint fewer muscles, but all the essential elements are there for a cover of Savage Sword of Conan (for example).

This led me to start thinking about Howard and Ariosto. Now, I’m not saying that Robert E. Howard ever read Ariosto (or Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato). I do wonder if maybe he read Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne, which is essentially a synopsis of Boiardo and Ariosto from what I can tell. Nonetheless, Ariosto and sword-and-sorcery fantasy are not as far as apart as you may guess.

Magic swords. Magicians from the East. Magical castles built by demons. Magic rings. Ghosts rising up from rivers. Various monsters.

There are men who fall in love with women so powerfully they will literally hunt them to the ends of the earth. There are men of nobility as well as villains amongst all races.

The cast of Orlando is essentially the same as in Conan, it’s just a different time period.

There are important differences between Howard and Ariosto, though. Howard is into what we would call the weird, etymologically speaking. The chilling, spooky, terrifying. There are dark and ancient evils hiding in the deserts of Howard’s imagination. Things without names. He also believes in the power of steel — it is not a magic sword that can save the day, but bravery and strong steel, even in the face of enchantment. His men are rough and violent, thieves, mercenaries, and the like. Conan is barely a hero, although he can rise to the heroic given the opportunity.

Ariosto’s world, a world of woods, castles, Saracens, and Christians, is different. The darkness is less heavy, and if enchantment is involved, you need enchantment to undo it. There is still nameless and faceless evil. But his men are cleaner and more civilised (if you will), living by a code of chivalry regardless of religion or ethnicity. They can also be straight-up wicked, despite their cleanliness and manners, mind you.

I’m sure that if I were reading Ariosto in Italian I would also find subtler differences than these. And if I read beyond Canto 4.

Most importantly for me right now, what they both have in common is that their stories are rip-roaring fun!