Tag Archives: pompey

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.

Cicero’s Letters to Atticus

M Tullius Cicero

In my peace and quiet on Saturday, I finished my ten-month journey through D R Shackleton Bailey’s translation of Cicero’s letters to Atticus, published by Penguin Classics (now out of print). Now, it’s not as though the letters to Atticus were all I read in those ten months. I did things like re-read Beowulf and The Hobbit and The Great Gatsby. I read Catullus. I read The Prose Edda and The Saga of the Volsungs.

But Cicero’s letters I dipped in and out of. My copy is from when Penguin still thought pocket books were a good idea, but the era when they were that matte black for spine and back cover — you know, the ones that turn 1/4 white or more by the time you’re done reading the book. Having been carted around about Britain and overseas in my backpack, suitcase, leather shoulder bag, hands, having been read in cafés, parks, libraries, in bed, in my living room, on airplanes, on the bus, this book is not in the greatest shape.

It was inevitable.

Two factors were against the book’s pristine condition, besides the fact that it wasn’t pristine when I got it: 1. The era of Penguin it is; 2. the nature of the collection; I was bound to take a long time reading Cicero.

Cicero’s letters to Atticus are not always the most rivetting material around. I mean, neither are Leo’s letters. So that is as it is. So sometimes the reader just needs a break. Sometimes it’s the sameness of them — ‘I have nothing to write, but I’m writing anyway. Whether you have something to write or not, write anyway.’ That is the most common of them.

Or, because a letter is one half of a conversation carried out over several days and great distances, it can take a very long time for Cicero and Atticus to deal with certain matters. And you never get Atticus’ half.

Nevertheless, I am  glad to have read them. It is no exaggeration that Cicero is one of the two people we know best before the modern era (the other is Francesco Di Marco Datini [1335-1410], the merchant of Prato). The letters to Atticus, unlike some of Cicero’s other missives, are Cicero laid bare. When he writes to Antony, he may say, ‘You are my best friend; to do what you want is not a duty but an honour,’ but when he says that sort of thing to Atticus he means it.

A lot of people find Cicero stuffy. Or they poo-poo him because of his pride over how he dealt with Catiline. Be that as it may, when you read the letters, especially from his exile in 58-57 BC to the end of the Atticus correspondence, you start to see him more fully, more rounded. He’s not simply stuffy. He is a real man, with real emotions and a love for his country. This is visible in the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey, and then in the aftermath of the Ides of March that covers the last period of the book.

Equestrian statue of Augustus looking much like C Julilus Caesar, National Archaeological Museum, AthensI am always struck by Caesar; at a certain level, I kind of like the guy. And sometimes I’ve even believed the lie that the Principate (aka Empire) was inevitable. Cicero’s letters pull the rug out from under these after-the-fact readings of history. He may not have the solution. You may not agree with all of Cicero’s ideals, but that doesn’t mean that Augustus (the first emperor) was a natural, unavoidable phenomenon. Reading Cicero’s letters I found myself siding for the first time with Brutus and Cassius.

You see him early in the collection mentioning letters of consolation. And then, years and years later, his daughter Tullia dies. And he grieves as deeply as I believe many a father has throughout history. He goes into seclusion for a period. He reads all of the philosophers on death and consolation. He plans building Tullia  a shrine. He goes through real grief.

Cicero is a real man. Like him or not, how can you not be moved by grief such as his?

If you are a Classicist or a great enthusiast for Cicero/the Late Republic, I recommend you read the whole of the collection of letters to Atticus. You will find reflections not only on the politics of the era but also on art and literature and philosophy and how to lead the best life. It is worth reading.

If not, I still recommend Cicero’s letters. Penguin subsequently released a Selected Letters, that draws not only from those to Atticus but to others as well, and which is smaller than the collection to Atticus, anyway. Check it out. You may just learn something and come to appreciate one of the great men of history.