Tag Archives: latin literature

Mythology through (ancient) literature

Mythology through art - Theseus vs the Minotaur, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

Mythology through art – Theseus vs the Minotaur, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

I have stolen the title ‘Mythology Through Literature’ from an undergraduate course my wife had the good fortune of taking — I did not have enough room for that particular course due to an overload of Latin and Greek. However, as an undergraduate I had the opportunity not only to take ‘Greek Mythology’, but ‘Homer and Virgil’ and ‘Greek Tragedy’ besides courses on Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad in the original languages. When I reflect on this, as well as my graduate education, the reality comes home to me time and again that our knowledge of Greek mythology comes to us through literature, and not simply compendia such as the Library of ‘Apollodorus’ — itself the greatest compendium of Greek myths. (I’d link to it, but WordPress has lost its mind.)

Of course, epic in the tradition of Hesiod can feel like a compendium, whether Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Such epics, however, are more than compendia (one might argue, in fact, that compendia are not ‘mere’ compendia, either). They, themselves, have all the artistry of more extended literary tellings of the ancient stories, whether Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. They are, themselves, literature, written in dactylic hexameters with their own beauty and structure and use of metaphor, simile, allusion.

I love Hesiod and Ovid. Nonetheless, there is a different kind of pleasure that comes from discovering myths in other poets. When I was studying Greek and Latin poetry, mythology felt as if it were hiding behind every corner. For example, reading The Iliad you encounter not even the whole tale of Troy (or Ilium), but along the way (in Book 6) you encounter the tale of Bellerophon, as recounted by characters on the battlefield. In Virgil’s Aeneid book 8, we meet what may be an Italic folktale in the story of Cacus vs Hercules. Or you sit down to read a victory ode written by Pindar for Arcesilas, King of Cyrene, for the victory of Arcesilas’ chariot in the Pythian Games (Fourth Pythian Ode), and find yourself reading about Jason and the Argonauts and the founding of Cyrene.

Another lyric poet who wrote mythological victory odes was Simonides of Ceos, who was once refused half of his pay on the grounds that Castor and Pollux should pay the other half, given how much they featured in the poem!

The most famous mythological literature of the ancients is, of course, the epics — Homer, Hesiod, and Apollonius in Greek, then Virgil, Ovid, and Statius in Latin (but also Claudian) — and the tragedies. Indeed, who can not be moved by the power and force of Aeschylus Oresteia? It is Sophocles’ telling of Oedipus that we all know, and the finish to the tale of Jason comes through Euripides’ Medea. Yet alongside the poetry, we meet mythology in an unlikely place — Plato, who barred poets from his Republic, is our main source for the myth of Atlantis in the Critias.

Ancient Greek and Latin literature is vast, spanning many centuries, from Homer in the 700s BC to Claudian in AD 400. The result of learning mythology through literature is that your Greek mythology storybook from when you were a kid is sometimes at variance with what you find. I remember one of my professors in university having given a particular version of a myth (really sorry, I forget which!!), and a friend was bent out of shape that he had ‘got it wrong.’ However, later on I discovered that he had, in fact, ‘got it right’ — there was more than one telling.

For example, how was Aphrodite born? Hesiod tells us that she was born from the foam that built up in the sea around Ouranos’ castrated genitals (Theogony 188). Homer refers to Dione as her mother (Iliad 5.370). Who is ‘right’? Hesiod even gives us conflicting accounts of Athena — daughter of Zeus and Metis, although born out of Zeus’ belly (line 887), or self-generated from Zeus’ head (line 924)?

According to ‘Apollodorus’, Athena blinded Teiresias for seeing her naked while bathing (Library 3.6.7). But another version (I forget the source!) says that Teiresias was blinded because he revealed that women enjoy sex more than men (having spent part of his life as a woman, part as a man), and Hera was angry with him for giving away her secret. Which is ‘right’?

Did Aphrodite offer Paris the most beautiful woman on earth or irresistible sexiness?

Such a list could go on.

There is much appeal to reading mythology through ancient literature — the literature itself is pleasant to enjoy. The drama of a tragedy, the glory of an epic, the terseness of a lyric poem. The beauty of it all. And, alongside it, there comes the pleasure of encountering new versions of old stories, revealing a textual and narrative playfulness with the ‘canon’ that we have difficulty grasping ourselves. Once you’ve read a book about Greek myths, there’s no better place to turn next than the ancient literature itself.

Discover Fifth-century Religion and Literature

Preamble (you can scroll down to Content if you like)

Because I inevitably blog about Late Antiquity here (3rd century-ish to 6th or 7th century-ish history), I’ve been intermittently writing posts about Discovering Late Antiquity. So far, I’ve explained why you should discover this period, encouraged you to discover Roman history more generally, then talked about discovering the third century, as well as discovering fourth-century religion and literature and fourth-century politics.

What ought to have come next was something about fourth-century art and architecture, which has kind of happened, since what followed were musings and photographs of Late Antique things I saw in Rome, in these posts: Late Antique Rome? Where? followed by Late Antique Rome: Mausoleo di Santa Costanza then Roman Basilicas: Hunting Late Antiquity and The Baths of Diocletian: More from Late Antique Rome. I also wrote a review of a book on imperial/Late Antique Roman art, although it’s not in this post category.

Logical progression would urge me to contextualise the Roman posts with one about fourth-century art and architecture or to finish them off with my planned post about non-monumental things from Late Antique Rome. Instead, I would like to introduce to you the fifth century (if you’ve survived this preamble).

St Jerome, d. 420

Content of this piece

Given that I’ve just submitted a PhD dissertation about the manuscripts that contain letters of Pope Leo the Great (pope 440-461), it will come as no great shock that this is ‘my’ century of Roman history. It is also, therefore, where I am most aware of my shortcomings — shortcomings I hope to address over the years to come through an analysis of the surviving sources, of which we have many.

Why should you care about the fifth century? Well, in the first place, this is the century when Rome ‘fell’ (however, see Victor of Tunnuna on that). That’s kind of a big deal. It is also the century of the first enduring schisms within the Christian church, lasting to this day. It’s the century when King Arthur — if there was one — would probably have fought battles in Britain. It is the century of Augustine’s greatest writings and Jerome’s final writings. It is the century of St Patrick’s mission to Ireland. It is a very big century of change, in short. Such centuries are always worth knowing. In this post, I’ll just look at religion and literature.

Religion and Literature

The landscape of fifth-century religion, unlike that of the fourth, is entirely Christian. Very soon within the century, we have no more pagans. Their descendants have all converted to Christianity. They have not, however, given up on Classical culture. Evidence for this is found in the Christian literature of the century.


Sidonius Apollinaris. I like Sidonius; some people find him distasteful, a bit too ‘decadent’. However, his is the jewelled style of the age, and it is no fault if he writes like a fifth-century man. If you read his poetry, you will find the endurance not only of classical poetic forms but of classical, ‘pagan’ imagery in the works of the consul-turned-bishop. If you are acquainted with Latin letters in the tradition of Cicero or of Pliny, Sidonius will seem perfectly Roman to you.

The letters of his friend Ruricius of Limoges strike you in the same way. At the end of the century are the similarly classicising poems and letters of Ennodius.

Augustine of Hippo. I suppose one would expect Augustine with religion, not literature. Nonetheless, he belongs in both. In 397 he wrote the first three books of his On Christian Teaching, in 426 the fourth. This text introduces some major concepts of rhetoric as well as of theory of language. His City of God is one of the great Latin classics. His polished corpus of sermons is a body of rhetorical exegesis well worth a read.

St Jerome was also active at the start of the century — as with him Augustine, many fifth-century churchmen demonstrate a rootedness in classical education. It would be tedious to list them all.

Rutilius Namatianus, unlike these others, was a pagan aristocrat who wrote a great poem De Reditu Suo about his journey home to Gaul from Rome in 416. If you want to see a pagan’s response to the growing Christian culture around him, including its ascetic elements, read Rutilius.


Heresy. Whether you agree with the official church’s definition of who was or was not a heretic in the fifth century, there were certainly disputes about doctrine. Early in the century was Pelagianism, condemned 418-419; this was a western controversy that continued to simmer over the century, although the teaching defined as ‘Pelagian’ was rejected by those on either side.

In the East we see the rise of ‘Nestorianism‘, a belief I am not certain anyone actually held, although Nestorius sometimes sounds like he does. Nestorius, Bp of Constantinople, was ultimately condemned as a heretic in the Council of Ephesus, 431. Those who refused to condemn him founded the ‘Church of the East’ that extended from ancient Persia to modern China. Nestorius chief opponent was Cyril of Alexandria, one of the greatest theological minds of the age. In the late 440s, an extreme Cyrillian named Eutyches was condemned for heresy at a local synod in Constantinople. This led to the Second Council of Ephesus which reinstated him; Pope Leo the Great called a ‘latrocinium’, a lair of robbers. Leo lobbied for its reversal, which came in 451 after a change in the imperial regime in Constantinople.

The reversal of Second Ephesus happened at the Council of Chalcedon. Here, Cyril and Leo were proclaimed the foundations of orthodoxy, and Leo’s teaching that Christ exists in two natures (human and divine) was accepted as the official teaching of the imperial church. Conservative Cyrillians rejected Chalcedon; they are later called Monophysites, today often Miaphysites, and now include the Coptic Orthodox Church, Syrian Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Tawahedo Church, and Armenian Apostolic Church (these are the ‘Oriental Orthodox’ Churches). The followers of Chalcedon have as their descendants Roman Catholicism, most Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Asceticism. The young ascetic/monastic movement that gained popularity with the Egyptian monks in the previous century continued to expand. This is the century of Sts Shenoute of the White Monastery, Euthymius, Simeon the Stylite, Daniel the Stylite, Savvas, Jacob of Serugh, and others in the East. In the West, we have John Cassian, the Jura Fathers, monks of Lérins such as Vincent of Lérins, as well as the final years of Paulinus of Nola and Sulpicius Severus.

Through the different crises of the fifth century, the ascetics and bishops provided their own versions of leadership and support to the Christian community. This is the age when we see the papacy gain greater authority and honour beyond Italy, as well as articulating a theology of papal primacy in the writings of Leo the Great. We also see more and more aristocrats becoming bishops, although first aristocratic pope was Felix III (pope 483-492). Alongside that, though, there are still ascetic bishops, such as Salvian of Marseille and Hilary of Arles. Thus, the trends of western Middle Ages are starting to become visible over the course of this century.

In the East, we see Constantinople rise to greater and greater prominence in ecclesiastical politics, much to the chagrin of Alexandria and Antioch. We also see ascetics acting with what people call parrhesia before emperors — an openness and frankness that the average citizen would not have the freedom to use. Trends are thus emerging here that will later be called Byzantine or Orthodox.

The fifth century — it’s well worth exploring. I hope you have the time to try.

The Emperor Julian and Divination

Julian in the ‘Thermes de Cluny’ — not my photo because my blog still won’t actually display uploaded media in posts

I just finished the second volume of J C Rolfe’s Loeb Classical Library edition of Ammianus Marcellinus’ (d. AD 390) history, the Res Gestae. What caught my mind the most in this volume was the Emperor Julian (called ‘the Apostate’), who died in AD 364 during his invasion of Sassanian Persia. Julian is called ‘the Apostate’ because of his conversion to paganism from Christianity in his youth. I am no Julian scholar, but there is a possibility that his conversion was in part driven by his response to the slaughter of his entire family and extended family save himself and his brother Gallus by the Emperor Constantius II when he was a boy in the ‘Summer of Blood’ (which is the title of a good article by R W Burgess). Whatever the causes, he was a strong adherent to traditional Graeco-Roman religion, the thing he is best remembered for.

Julian sported a beard like a philosopher emperor of old – indeed, he is compared to the Stoic Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) by Ammianus on several occasions. He kept pagan philosophers around him and composed some of his own philosophical and poetical works of a traditional nature. He also sacrificed animals to the gods on a regular basis, besides reopening many of the temples closed in decades since Constantine (r. 306-337) converted to Christianity in 312. His zeal for traditional religion also involved the banning of Christians from teaching rhetoric, a move of which the pagan Ammianus disapproved.

What struck me throughout Ammianus’ narrative of Julian’s brief reign was divination, the foretelling of the future, whether through omens or haruspicy (examination of entrails) or augury, etc.

Before his rise to the principate in AD 360 by acclamation of his troops in Paris (hey, I’m there right now!) and his gaining of sole rule in 361 upon the death of Constantius II (r. 337-361), he was already secretly practising traditional religion, including the arts of divination which foretold that he would rise to become Augustus (the formal title of the Roman emperors).

However, in 363, Julian decided that the best move for him to take was an invasion of the Persian Empire, partly in retaliation for some Persian activities on the frontier, partly in a show of one-upmanship to the deceased Constantius, who had only engaged the Persians in defensive warfare. He would take the battle to the Sassanians themselves.

As a good pagan with interest in divination, he made his consultations, and the omens turned up bad. In fact, all sorts of bad omens turned up. Julian chose to ignore the official augurs and haruspices and listen to the court philosophers instead, who gave lucky interpretations to the variety of omens that kept on happening or dismissed them as simply natural phenomena.* Whether or not every single omen discussed by Ammianus actually occurred cannot be said for sure, but I think that if one lived in a culture with omens as a regular part of daily life and plan-making, they could be found anywhere and everywhere.

So, despite the omens, Julian set out. And as he went, time after time, bad omens fell, such as his horse falling down and scattering its royal raiment. Time after time, the official diviners told him to go home. Time after time, he ignored them and pressed further and further into Persian territory, going so far, eventually, to burn ships and supplies, thus effectively stranding his armies a vast distance from the Roman border (a move that St Augustine of Hippo decried as a very dull-witted move in The City of God).

And then, one night, there was a shooting star – which Ammianus rightly notes could not possibly be an actual star, but he had no concept of other pieces of space debris that could appear in the heavens. Anyway, Julian consulted the Etruscan haruspices, and they said that:

any undertaking at that time must be most carefully avoided, pointing out that in the Tarquitian books, under the rubric “On signs from heaven” it was written, that when a meteor was seen in the sky, battle ought not to be joined, or anything similar attempted. When the emperor scorned this also, as well as many other signs, the soothsayers begged that at least he would put off his departure for some hours; but even this they could not gain, since the emperor was opposed to the whole science of divination, but since day had now dawned, camp was broken. (Amm. Marc., Res Gestae 25.2.7-8, trans Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library)

The next day, the Emperor Julian was stabbed and died of his wounds later on, discussing philosophy with the court philosophers to the end, after the manner of Socrates.

The statement in the Ammianus passage above is interesting, that ‘the emperor was opposed to the whole science of divination’. This is by no means an accurate statement based on Ammianus’ other evidence for Julian’s behaviour, including a discourse about Julian’s own skills in that art. Rolfe says in his footnote that this opposition came only when divination conflicted with Julian’s plans.

And here’s what I think most interesting about Julian’s relationship with divination. This is a man wholly committed to his own philosophy and religion. He engaged during his rule in a campaign of reconsecrating temples, recommencing sacrifices, desecrating Christian churches, barring Christians from certain professions, fostering pagan philosophical schools, and making himself out as a mythological figure adopted by the gods themselves. His devotion to traditional Roman religion combined with the philosophical schools of Late Antiquity can not remain in doubt. He was as sincere a pagan as Augustine was a Christian, even if Ammianus felt him superstitious rather than a legitimate observer of sacred things.

Yet, when push comes to shove, personal desires can trump belief. Julian wanted to invade Persia. The auspices, the auguries, the haruspices, the various omens, the Sibylline Books – none of these mattered. All that mattered was his own wish, and he would ignore or reinterpret the omens to fit his own vision, regardless of his personal piety.

There is a lesson here, I’m sure. Certainly a lesson in human nature, that all of us, even the sincere, can trump our own beliefs by other passions and drives. And perhaps that is lesson enough.

You can read Ammianus Marcellinus online here.

*The dismissing of an omen as a natural phenomenon is to ignore the essence of what an omen is, if you ask me. The point of an omen is that the supernatural is impinging upon the natural world to send a message using the available stuff that we see all around us. Notably, this is why the Carolingian obsession with astronomical phenomena as omens is not the same as astrology per se nor necessarily a pagan holdover – they believed the God of the Christians was communicating with them all the time, and the heavens were amongst his methods. A good essay on Carolingian star-gazing is P E Dutton ‘Of Carolingian Kings and Their Stars’, in Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age.