Horace and the Persians – Horatian Society Address 2014

At the end of last month I made, along with the writer and FT journalist Harry Eyres, one of the two annual addresses to the Horatian Society, held at the Old Hall of Lincoln’s Inn, London. Previous speakers to the Society include Boris Johnson, Sir Peter Stothard and Gail Trimble. I decided to speak on Horace and the Persians…

Mr. President, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Persicos odi puer apparatus – “I hate Persian fripperies”. So began Horace the last poem of his first book of Odes. He was, in this instance, giving instructions to his slave boy for preparing an al-fresco dinner at the end of the summer. No need, he goes on, for anything fancy: no elaborate garlands woven with lime bark; don’t trouble to hunt out the last roses of the season; we need nothing, you and I, to adorn the beauty of simple myrtle.

I am glad to observe this Society honours the Poet’s memory by keeping his precepts over the setting of dinner. Persian fripperies are mercifully absent this evening, and there would be little enhancement brought to this excellent feast by the addition of belly-dancers, arak, or opium-filled shisha pipes.

But needless to say, Horace’s injunction is about much more than his preference for simplicity in table settings. Even the word “apparatus” is polyvalent.[1] I translated it as “fripperies”; it might be grand preparations, the paraphernalia for a military triumph (perish the thought that the Persians should have any of those) or even rhetorical devices (a dig at his Persian poetic rivals, perhaps?). And beyond that, the poem comes in a context of sustained barbarian-bashing. In the previous ode (I.37), there is a public celebration for the downfall of that dangerous easterner, Cleopatra. Perhaps Horace’s al fresco dinner is the private celebration to follow that public joy, with the sentiment of trashing oriental luxury and magnificence – be it Egyptian or Persian – as the abiding theme of both poems.

When Horace predicted his literary immortality, I do not know if he thought that descendants of the effete Persians might be numbered amongst his votaries. Seeing as I find myself amongst their number, it is not unreasonable for me to ask how comfortable it is to be in such a position. The Persians are notoriously touchy about those of the classical world who did them down. They still smart over the ruins of Persepolis, and Alexander the Great is strictly Alexander of Macedon in Iranian circles. Should I then begrudge the poet his Delphic laurel for his general denigration of the Persian kind?

I need hardly remind you of the main source of Horace’s Persophobia. It was not just the un-Roman luxury of the “gorgeous East” which rankled with him. It was the Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus’ ill-conceived adventure to win himself glory and riches in the East, and make himself a rival to Caesar. Instead, he found at the hand of the Persians – or Parthians, I should say – his own death, the annihilation of his legions, and the shameful capture of their legionary standards. The Roman prisoners, as Horace recalls “lived in vile marriages with barbarian wives… forgetful of their shields, and togas and eternal Vesta…” Persia was, for generations, an existential threat to Rome. Their conflict was perennial, and one recalls that even a Roman Emperor, Valerian, was captured in AD 260 and forced to serve as the Great King’s footstool. If Horace egged on Augustus to protect Rome from this menace, and to turn Rome’s energy, so recently expended against itself in civil war, outwards against a dangerous foreigner, can he really be blamed?

Yet it is curious to think about how the Persians are portrayed in Horace’s work. First, there is his carelessness about naming them – one in which I have so far shared. The Arsacid dynasty of the Parthians were in charge in Horace’s time, not the Achaemenid Persians. Yet, for Horace, they are all one: Persians, Parthians, Medes, King Achamenes, King Cyrus. By the same token, today’s diplomats might complain of the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Ottoman Sultan, or the wearisome truculence of the Grand Duke of Muscovy towards the eastern Ukraine. Naturally, it is a studied carelessness. It is not worth our while spending precious time to learn in detail about these barbarians, and besides, to call them by those old names will associate Augustus with Salamis and Marathon, the Greek triumphs over the Persians in the 5th century BC in defence of western liberty; an elegant way to bring lustre to one’s ultimate patron.

But when Horace does trouble to offer any detail about them, how wonderfully contrary his depiction. On the one hand, we have the jihadi. They are feroces, warlike and insolent[2], graves, harsh and oppressive[3], horribiles, dreadful[4], and infidi, deceitful[5]. It is indeed by their deceitful means of war that we know them, their use of feigned retreat[6] and archery[7]. Think of an Islamic State guerrilla armed with a bow and arrow.

On the other hand, we have the trustafarian sybarite. They drip with wealth, drip with extremely expensive perfume, as do even their slaves, and they are addicted to apparatus, fripperies. None of this opulence ever seems to please them. And, on occasion, the warrior and the wastrel are fused together; in one ode we see the “Median” soldier strutting about and showing off his flashy and no-doubt bejewelled quiver[8].

Even where credit might be due to the Persians, Horace is unwilling to give it. Some have suggested that Horace was aware of the Persian notion of the paradise garden: a retreat, usually the King’s, pleasant and cool with shade and running water[9]. When Horace urges his friend Tyndaris to visit his Sabine Farm, in addition to many of these paradisal qualities, observes Horace, Tyndaris will not be troubled by a rival who has been importuning him: a wanton fellow who can’t keep his fists under control, who might tear off Tyndaris’ festal robe or garland. The name of this devil kept out of paradise? A resoundingly Persian Cyrus.[10]

Curiously, Horace’s bipolar stereotype is little changed even today. Look at any newspaper: we either see those villainous ayatollahs ducking and weaving at the negotiating table as they menacingly spin their secret nuclear centrifuges; or else the jeunesse dorée of north Tehran, taunting the religious police with headscarves provocatively pulled back, diving into carouses so unbounded that they make a Friday night in Soho look like one of Savonarola’s tea-parties. 

It was not as if Rome was entirely without its Persians to give to the airy nothingness of Horace’s imagination some sensible definition, nor as if he were following some official line of the Augustan regime. In 20 BC, when Augustus returned in triumph with those captured standards – won by negotiation, not war – the Roman statuary and coinage of the period generally portrayed the Persians with dignity. This was shortly after the publication of the Odes in 23 BC. The Persians are shown not as humiliated enemies, bowed and shackled, as for example were the Gauls in coinage to mark Julius Caesar’s conquests. They appear standing upright, hands unbound, almost, but not quite, on a par with Augustus himself.

Indeed, they seem to have made their way to the heart of the Roman establishment. Recent scholarship has identified two of the figures in the imperial entourage on the Ara Pacis, that most perfect icon of Augustus’ blessings (inaugurated in 13 BC), as children of the Persian King, brought back to Rome as part of the settlement over Crassus’ standards[11]. The official iconography does not show them as enemies, but as “contributors to peace”; a far cry from Horace’s wish that war, plague and famine be visited on the Persians[12]. So far from Horace contentedly reclining under his vine, urging us chin-chin with the chosen Massic and not to worry about tedious conflicts in far-off countries of which we know little, he is avid for war. Is our Horace in fact less a guide to life and more a neo-con before his time, a sort of be-togaed Rumsfeld?

Perhaps Horace little esteemed the Persians because he knew little of their literature. Persian princes made it to Rome under Augustus, but it seems that it was not the same for their books. Horace speaks slightingly of Persian apparatus perhaps with its literature in mind, but in truth he had very little to go on. Then again, for Persian writing of that age, neither do we. There was certainly the Avesta, the ancient body of Zoroastrian texts, but had he somehow access to this dense corpus of scripture and liturgy, I feel he would have esteemed these noble but stolid verses little in comparison to what he had from the Greeks. And were there Persian lyricists of that age, they are lost, mute and inglorious.

Yet, if Horace is content to mislay several hundred years in his portrayal of the Persians, then I too claim the right of anachronism in my response. Horace is immortal, after all. Let him fly forward a thousand years and more, and engage in amoebean contest with those later Persians who have raised poetic monuments more long-lasting than bronze. Horace sings of the pleasures of friendship, wine and humble contentment:

Vile potabis modicis Sabinum / Cantharis … “you will drink cheap booze with me, Maecenas, from plastic glasses”[13]

And so Omar Khayyam, mediated by Edward Fitzgerald:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness-

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow![14]

The folly of future worries, and love of the moment:

Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere – “Quit asking what will come tomorrow”[15]

Khayyam replies:

Waste not your Hour, nor in vain pursuit

Of This and That endeavour and dispute;

Better be jocund with the fruitful grape

Than sadder after none, or bitter Fruit.[16]

The folly of excessive toil in the face inevitable death:

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume… “A worthier heir will quaff your Caecuban vintage now guarded by a hundred keys…”[17]

Step forward Hafez, in the words of Gertrude Bell:

A tale of April the meadows unfold—

Ah, foolish for future credit to slave,

And to leave the cash of the present untold!

Build a fort with wine where thy heart may brave

The assault of the world; when thy fortress falls,

The relentless victor shall knead from thy dust

The bricks that repair its crumbling walls.[18]

And poetic immortality:

Exegi monumentum aere perennius… “I have made a monument more long-lasting than bronze…”[19]

We hear from Sa’adi’s Gulistan or “Rose Garden”:

What use to you might be a dish of roses?

Rather, take a leaf from my Rose Garden.

A rose endures for just five days or six

But the bloom of my Rose Garden will for ever be fresh.[20]

So many are the similarities in motifs, concerns and even spirit that one might quote until the Sultan’s turret is caught in a noose of light, and we hardly know whether Horace’s favourite retreat is the Sabine farm or Shiraz. It might even have been his favourite grape, had he known of it.

It is troubling to find Horace unwilling to see the potential for humanitas in the Persians he so resembled (even at a thousand years’ difference), especially when their verse was so willing to transcend the incidents of religion and tribe. Again from Sa’adi’s Gulistan:

Human beings are members of a whole, / In creation of one essence and soul.[21]

Yet perhaps it is asking too much of Horace to have transcended his age to the extent of spurning its politics, and foregoing a convenient bogeyman. It must be overlooked, as we must overlook for example the inescapable anti-Semitism of Wagner for the boon and ultimate humanity of his work. If Horace had encountered the verse of his Persian brethren – and perhaps he has done so in some paradise somewhere – then doubtless he would have acknowledged his error, and held that Crassus’ soldiers even in Parthian captivity encountered Romanitas and humanitas. And similarly today, amongst those threatening ayatollahs and wild parties of north Tehran, we might recognise something of our own European lives instead of an implacable other. It is something to ponder this on day, when for the first time since the Iranian Revolution a British Prime Minister has met an Iranian President. Let no more be said against Persian fripperies; they are much the same as our own.

[1] See P. Hardie, “Fifth-Century Athenian and Augustan Images of the Barbarian Other” Classics Ireland, Vol. 4, (1997), 46-56

[2] Od III.ii.3

[3] Od III.v.4

[4] Od I.xxix,4

[5] Od IV.xv.23

[6] Od I.xix.11

[7] Od II.xiii.19

[8] Od. II.xvi.6

[9] W.S. Anderson, “Paradise Gained by Horace, Lost by Gulliver”, The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 14, Satire Special Number. Essays in Memory of Robert C. Elliott 1914-1981 (1984), 151-166

[10] Od. I.xvii

[11] C.B. Rose, “The Parthians in Ancient Rome”, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Jan. 2005),  21-75

[12] Od. I.xxi.15

[13] Od. I.xx.1

[14] Rubaiyat XII

[15] Od I.ix.12

[16] Rubaiyat LIV

[17] Od. II.14

[18] Ode VII

[19] Od. III.xxx.1

[20] Introduction

[21] Chapter 1 Story 10

Londinium AD 120: The first British Gladiators?

A new forensic examination of skulls which were discovered in 1988 in the Walbrook Valley has suggested that they could be the remains of gladiators. The examination, carried out by the Natural History Museum in conjunction with the Museum of London, found that the skulls had suffered “blunt force trauma” to their front and sides. As a result of this examination, several theories have been put forward to explain what had happened to the victims – mostly young men who had died between AD 120-160. One suggestion is that they are the severed heads of barbarian enemies taken by the Roman armies on the frontiers of Britain. However, more credible are the ideas that they were executed as criminals in the nearby London amphitheatre, or else had perished in combat as gladiators. Such gladiatorial graves have been found on mainland Europe, and it could be the case that this is the first example of the phenomenon in Britain.

One remembers the old adage from Viz, “A Pint and a Fight, a Great British Night”. From gladiators to glassings, tastes in London don’t seem to have changed much. A friend from Kentish town was shaking his head mournfully over the weekend: “there are two murders every week in the local paper” – but if these skulls are anything to judge, ’twas ever thus in London. Or as the Romans would say, “nihil sub sole novum“.

The Ara Pacis: Resetting the Sundial of Augustus

Work by archaeologists at the University of Indiana has overturned a long-standing theory about two monuments raised by the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, and perhaps also cast a new light on his ideas about religion and government.

View of the Ara Pacis (Creative Commons, Manfred Heyde)

In 13 BC, after Augustus had returned from a three-year expedition to Gaul and Hispania, the Roman Senate voted to dedicate an altar in his honour. It was to be called the Ara Pacis or “Altar of Peace”, intended to celebrate the tranquility which Augustus had brought to the Roman Empire after a century of civil war. The Altar was dedicated in 9 BC, and although not large in scale is both beautiful and steeped in allusion to Augustus’ religious policy and his vision for the resurrection of the Empire. Resurrection, even in this context, is not too strong a word. The altar is covered in realistic depictions of indigenous burgeoning foliage, suggesting an almost elemental return of life to a land once sunk in winter and despair. On friezes around the altar are depicted processions of the Roman imperial family and other dignities engaged in sacrifice. Their expressions are grave and dignified, an example of the piety and sober behaviour which Augustus hoped to encourage amongst Romans after the selfish and irreligious violence of the civil war.

The "Tellus panel" from the Ara Pacis (Creative Commons)

The cultivation of an apparently neglected religion as a cure for the evils which had beset both Rome and the character of its people was one of Augustus’ primary policies. The idea is perfectly expressed in one of Horace’s Roman Odes (III.6.1-8):

Delicta maiorum inmeritus lues,
Romane, donec templa refeceris
     aedisque labentis deorum et
     foeda nigro simulacra fumo.

Dis te minorem quod geris, imperas:               
hinc omne principium, huc refer exitum.
     Di multa neglecti dederunt
     Hesperiae mala luctuosae.

(Although without guilt, you will pay for the sins of your ancestors, O Roman, until you restore the tottering shrines of the gods and the images stained with black smoke. Because you make yourselves lowly before the gods, you rule: to this point lay every undertaking, and to it every result. The neglected gods have given many woes to wretched Italy.)

Yet, if one were to accept Horace’s idea that the Romans should make themselves lower than the gods (dis te minorem… geris), there was something that jarred about the Ara Pacis. Sited near it on the Campus Martius was a 70-ft high red granite obelisk – the Obelisk of Montecitorio – which had been brought back from Egypt in 10 BC. The pavement around the Obelisk had been marked with lines so that it might serve as a sundial – all well and good – but according to observations which had been made by archaeologists over the last 50 years, the ensemble was designed so that on the day of Augustus’ birthday (23rd September) the shadow from the tip of the obelisk should fall across the centre of the Ara Pacis.

There were many ideas circulating during that time about Augustus’ almost cosmic role. The whole of the Aeneid, the Roman foundation epic written by Virgil just before this time, suggests that Augustus was fated by Jupiter to bring peace to Rome and extend its dominions across the earth. Yet there is something that always seemed to me excessive about the Sundial of Augustus; a suggestion that there was some grand coincidence of the cosmos looking down and bringing Augustus to birth. If the Altar was ultimately dedicated to the gods, then a proclamation of Augustus’ heavenly grandeur in a monument of piety to the traditional goods looks out of place; it is hardly dis te minorem… geris.

Yet, the new research about the sundial has brought this old theory crashing down. By computer simulations and the use of astronomical data, they have found that the Obelisk was actually designed not to point to the altar on Augustus’ birthday, but on 9th October – the Festival of Palatine Apollo. The revelation makes much more sense of the monument. Augustus was known for his dedication to Apollo: he attributed his victory at the 31 BC Battle of Actium (where he routed Antony and Cleopatra and assured his victory in the Civil War) to Apollo’s presence. A sundial which paid tribute to the guiding hand of Apollo over Augustus’ affairs and the peace of the Roman Empire is much more in keeping with Augustus’ own history and his vaunted piety to the gods, handing the ultimate tribute for Roman peace and victory not to himself, but them.


Liberty and Leisure – George Herbert, “otium” and lessons for our age

This is the text of an editorial I wrote for the 2013 edition of Camden, Westminster School’s liberal arts magazine meditating on the old clash of “otium” (leisure) and “negotium” (business) in the context of education and modern life. The original text and the whole magazine are available online here:


Liberty and Leisure 

One way in which the 17th-century Old Westminster poet George Herbert shows the modernity of his mindset is a thoroughly uncomfortable relationship with free time.

In one of his poems, Heaven, he ponders what delights one might find in the hereafter. The first two, he discovers, are “Light” and “joy”. However, the third and greatest is “leisure”. It is a quality which he feels does not ultimately belong to the human condition. In another poem, The Pulley, he suggests that this lack is part of God’s plan. During the creation, God endowed mankind with every blessing except rest. Man could have “beauty… wisdom, honour, pleasure” but had to keep them with “repining restlessness”. “Let him be rich and weary,” said God, “that at least,/ If goodness lead him not, yet weariness/ May toss him to my breast.” Herbert loves the idea of leisure, but fears that its actual possession in this life could easily lead man astray.

By expressing these ideas, Herbert was contributing to a debate which had started in the ancient world. The Romans put it as a contest between otium and negotium – “leisure” and “business”. 

It was the virtue of a Roman to take part in the public sphere. He should be busying himself in the courts, military service, and political office. Here, he might win glory for himself and his family. A failure to do so was seen as indolence, offensive to the state. A Roman who refused to take part in negotium could hardly be said to be Roman at all.

This is not to say that otium was out of bounds. The case for otium was best put by Cicero, who had been forced out of public life in the 50s BC by his rival Caesar into a long spell of otium. Although Cicero was not at ease with his own otium, he turned it to good account. During this period he worked incessantly, producing a slew of books on philosophy and statecraft, many of which had the merit of bringing great tranches of Greek thought into the Roman world. Cicero argued that otium, when used for literary and intellectual pursuits, was of as much benefit to the state as negotium. By acquainting oneself with the works of great writers and philosophers and conveying them to a wider public, one not only became a better statesman, but also improved the people at large. By this token, his otium had nothing of desidia (“idleness”) but was actually otium negotiosum – “busy leisure”.

The debate was one which carried on through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. For St Augustine, otium gave one the opportunity to philosophise and contemplate higher things. St Thomas Aquinas, taking up the Roman debate, held that the Contemplative Life was better than the Active Life, but that the Active Life was still a prerequisite to contemplation. Quoting Gregory the Great, he observes that labour can sometimes be necessary to put one in a fit state for contemplation: “…there be some so restless that when they are free from labour they labour all the more, because the more leisure they have for thought, the worse interior turmoil they have to bear”.

Many Renaissance scholars similarly saw such a need for balance. They lauded the liberty otium gave for religious contemplation, self-examination, and the production of art and poetry, but at the same time recognised the need to engage in public life.

Hence, a number of thinkers observed that there were many dangers in too much negotium. Petrarch, for example, suggested that leisure and withdrawal were an antidote to worldly vanity; a necessary path for those who desire true knowledge. There is a slothful ease in being busy. By losing oneself in overwork, one may be easily distracted from the difficulty and discomfort of genuine hard thought and confronting real problems. The idea is well expressed by another 17th-century poet, Mildmay Fane, 2nd Earl of Westmoreland, “Our Senses are bewitch’d, and seem to grow/ So to the Creature, and on things below,/ That all our busied Fancy can devise,/ Serves more to sink them, than to make them rise…”

This old debate has much to tell the modern world. We are in an age where otium is being crowded out. To use the old cliché, we are cash rich (if we are lucky) and time poor. The persistent demands of the internet, mobile communications, and 24-hour news seize our intellectual appetite like over-salted peanuts. In the political world, the Sisyphean whirl of spin and instant reaction leaves little room for governments to think deeply about the difficult problems of globalisation, overpopulation and the environment. Financial service workers, engrossed by the Blackberry and long hours, give little thought to the wider consequences of their actions. In the media, the difficult and complex is always eschewed for the simplified and bite-sized, for audiences are thought too distracted to concentrate on anything hard. Likewise, in many public institutions, more effort is expended on fine showings in league tables, leaving the strange and original endeavour – in which the genuine strength of society often lies – to perish for want of space.

The word “school” is derived from the Greek σχολή, meaning “leisure”. Now more than ever is it imperative to remember this fact. The Liberal Education for which Westminster School was founded is none other than Cicero’s otium negotiosum: free thought, enquiry and creativity dependent on free time and freedom from cares. As Hobbes said, “leisure is the mother of philosophy”. The best way to achieve the promises of the Liberal Education is to try to achieve less, thus standing against the prevailing imbalance towards negotium in modern society. Herbert’s paradise of leisure is not so difficult to win, and it is not something that we should approach with any fear.

Westminster School Election Dinner – the home of new Latin poetry

Westminster School is one of the last places in the country to preserve many of the customs from the time when Latin was the lingua franca of English education. Prayers are still said in Latin every Wednesday, Queen’s Scholars are admitted to the foundation in a Latin ceremony, and the tradition of performing Latin comedies by Terence of Plautus is still sporadically maintained. One of the most extraordinary and creative survivals is that of the annual Election Dinner, which was held last night.

Westminster is part of the same foundation as Christ Church Oxford and Trinity College Cambridge. Traditionally, there would be an annual visitation from the heads of these colleges to Westminster to choose scholars to proceed to these institutions, a process known as the Election. After the academic formalities of the Election, the visitors from Oxford and Cambridge would be given a grand feast – the Election Dinner – at which they would be entertained not by speeches Latin and Greek Epigrams as well as songs. The writing and improvisation of Latin and Greek epigrams formed a major part of the Classical education of the Renaissance, and proficiency in this field was considered a sine qua non for anyone aspiring to higher study.

Although the Election itself ceased at the beginning of the 20th century, the custom of the Election Dinner has been maintained; it reaches back, only interrupted by the two World Wars, to the Elizabethan refoundation of the School in 1560. The tradition of writing new Latin epigrams is also continued; the Election Dinner is perhaps the leading public forum for new Latin poetry anywhere in England, and perhaps the world. Departing members of staff are honoured with three verses of Horatian-style alcaics if they served more than seven years, and are included in an elegiac medley if they were at the school for less than that time. Current affairs are then satirised in elegiac couplets after the style of Martial, and then translated into English epigrams or songs.

One object of the epigram is to pun an English phrase into the Latin like a cryptic crossword readthrough, so that both the Latin substance and the English pun both reflect the matter in hand. One of my own contributions to the evening was this epigram on the recent horsemeat scandal, rendered into English by a song to the tune of The Roast Beef of Old England

Latin epigram

si findas, hospes, iam cultro suavia crusta,

   invenias Phrygium, nobile munus, equum.


Reading through one finds the pun – “Findus horse pies, yum”

Translation: If you were now, guest, to cut open the tasty pies with your knife, you would find – an excellent gift – a Trojan Horse.


English song (to the tune of The Roast Beef of Old England…)

When mighty roast beef was the Englishman’s food,

Our meatballs were honest, our burgers were true,

But now in lasagne you’ll find Shergar stewed…

And oh, the roast beef of old England

Is now for the most part horse.


When Findus and Asda have their wicked way,

We’ll feast not on fillet, but dapple and grey,

And in Bolognese a knackered old bay…

And oh, the roast beef of old England

Is now for the most part horse.


And next year at Aintree around Becher’s Brook

Instead of the punters a covey of cooks

Boiling the gee-gees up into French soup…

And oh, the roast beef of old England

Is now for the most part horse.

Plutocratisation – getting priced out of ancient Rome

Simon Kuper wrote a melancholy piece in the latest Weekend FT on a subject which weighs upon every thinking urbanite – the vertiginous climb in house prices in the world’s great capitals, making it virtually impossible for anyone outside the ‘one per cent’ to live in them. The cities underwent gentrification in the 1980s, and now, in Kuper’s excellent coinage, they are seeing ‘plutocratisation’. Anyone not lucky enough to inherit city property or be a part of the corporate sector marathon is forced to the margins. Those who dedicate their time to the ‘counter, original, spare, strange’ are denied the oxygen of creative association and like-minded society, since they compelled to abandon urban life for the relative isolation of the suburbs. Bye-bye Bohemia, in other words.

Kuper makes one point that should be extended. He writes that ‘there’s an iron law of 21-st century life: when something is desirable, the “one per cent” grabs it.’ This might well be a law for the present day, but it was certainly the rule for ancient Rome. The Roman Republic offers an example of the exact same phenomenon of plutocratisation, but with a interesting twist and a frightening conclusion. It was the countryside, not the city, which suffered the attentions of the ‘one per cent’.

Rome, at its birth, was a nation of farmers. Its historians and poets look back to a golden age – which in all likelihood was mostly a reality – when the Roman citizens were a sturdy, property-owning yeomanry. They came into the city only to transact business and go to market, but their real life was farming. It was here, in the rigours of practical rustic life on their smallholdings, that they learned the virtues which made Rome great. Horace, writing at the end of the first century BC, looks back over 200 years to the time of the Punic Wars, and declares that the Romans who beat Hannibal were “the manly offspring of peasant soldiers, who had been taught to turn the sod with the Sabellian mattock; on the instructions of their stern mother, they learned to cut and carry firewood, when the sun was lengthening the shadows on the hillside, lifting the yoke from weary oxen…” (Horace, Odes 3.6).

The virtue of such a civic order, so the Roman historians thought (for example see Appian, The Civil Wars 1.1.7ff) was its stability. The citizens learned martial strength from their work on the land, and to despise luxury and vanity, and the desire for excess. Hence, there was a unity amongst the citizen body through a rough equality of wealth. The produce of the farms would maintain the soldiers and their families even whilst the soldiers were on campaign, and the possession of land gave the citizen class a stake in society, something very specific for which to fight.

Yet, the manly offspring of peasant soldiers were too successful for their own good. The many campaigns fought by Rome as the Empire expanded meant that the soldiers were too often absent from their smallholdings to cultivate them properly. Many fell into disuse, and others were ravaged by attacks on Italy, particularly those of Hannibal. Roman success in warfare also brought into Italy vast hordes of cheap slaves. With such conditions, from the middle of the third century BC wealthier Romans began to buy up the countryside and to cultivate it with gangs of slaves. For the original small-holders, who could scarcely compete with slave labour, there was the additional problem that newly-captured territories began to send tributes of grain to Rome, which were distributed for free to the poor dwellers in the city itself. Through the second century BC the process continued, with the result that the countryside was plutocratised, and the ordinary middle-class Roman citizens were forced from their small farms into city slums.

The outcome, in brief, is something that should give the contemporary world pause. In the city, thousands of unemployed people with nothing to sell but their votes and political support, happily bought off with free food and public entertainments (this is the origin of Juvenal’s ‘bread and circuses’); in the wider world, legions of soldiers with no homes to come back to an no income to support them on demobilisation looking to their generals to find them cash and a pension; in government, a wealthy minority looking to cling on to their property, uninterested in helping the dispossessed masses.

If one can trace the start of the civil war in Rome to one point, which left hundreds of thousands dead, wracked the politics of the empire with ambitious demagogues like Sulla and Caesar struggling for power, and led to the collapse of the old republican constitution and the rise of autocratic emperors, it was to an attempt in 133 BC by a more forward-thinking aristocrat, Tiberius Gracchus, to redistribute the land held by the Roman ‘one per cent’. For his pains, Tiberius Gracchus was murdered, and blood began to flow freely in the forum. One wonders, after the Roman example, what would happen in our own world should some Gracchus come forward to reform the iniquities of our plutocratised age.


Think Latin AS levels are racy? Forget Ovid, look at Pre-U Tacitus

The Daily Mail and the Times earlier this week expressed surprise and shock that pupils sitting AS level exams were asked to comment on a passage of Ovid’s Amores (3.14), which include a depiction of lovers in embrace (‘Talk lovingly. Say all sorts of naughty things, and let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure.’ [tr. J. Lewis May]).

They were even able to find a Professor – of physics – from Cambridge to condemn the inclusion of the text in the exam syllabus. “Professor John Ellis,” writes The Mail,” a reader in  physics at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, and fellow at Gonville and  Caius College, said the exam board was not in their ‘right minds’ to  include the passage for children as young as 16…” He told the Times: ‘How would a school react  to such material distributed on their premises? ‘Many teachers would have glossed over this extract, assuming no one in their right minds would set it in an exam.’”

As helpful as it is to have Professor Ellis’ tips on how to choose Classical texts for the classroom and the treatment of them in lessons, I am more relieved that no-one has told him, the Times or the Mail about the syllabus of this year’s Pre-U Latin exam (the new alternative to the A Level). The prose paper looks at Tacitus Annals 14 and 15, which describe the reign of the Emperor Nero. A few choice incidents from the set text include:

- The seduction of Nero by his mother, Agrippina – she presented herself to her son seductively attired, as he was half-drunk at lunchtime, smothering him in kisses and caresses (14.2)

- The murder of Agrippina by Nero’s agents, described in violent detail, including her being stabbed and beaten about the head, with Nero then praising the beauty of her body after death (14.8-9)

- A rampant orgy carried out for the benefit of the emperor on Agrippa’s lake – vessels clad in gold and ivory sailed around the lake, where booths were set up with noble women forced to pole-dance (the Roman equivalent) and act as prostitutes, whilst Nero himself underwent a same-sex wedding with a Greek freedman, named Pythagoras (15.37)

- Graphic scenes of enforced suicide, including the philosopher Seneca opening his veins (15.64) and the freedwoman Epicharis hanging herself with her bra after being broken on the rack (15.57)

After the violence and corruption of Tacitus, one should be pleased that students have the opportunity to read some good and wholesome Ovid. You can read more about Books 14 and 15 of Tacitus at this introduction on my website here.

Discovered? The site of one Alexander the Great’s Central Asian Massacres…

Reading the first volume of Christoph Baumer’s excellent new History of Central Asia, I was excited to see a recent development in an ancient mystery: the question of Alexander the Great’s massacre of the Branchidae.

The story is one of the most unpleasant deeds in Alexander’s conquest of Central Asia. Its beginning lies, however, many generations beforehand. The clan of the Branchidae were the keepers of an ancient shrine of Apollo at Didyma. Located on the south-eastern coast of Asia Minor, it was on the territory of the trading city of Miletus. In 493 BC, when Darius was embarking on his conquest of the Greeks, the Branchidae willingly gave up the temple to the Persian King, who desecrated and burnt it. In return for their compliance, and to prevent them from any attack by their fellow Greeks, the Branchidae were safely resettled in a new town somewhere beyond the Oxus, in the far territory of the Persian Empire.

When Alexander was making his conquest of the Persian Empire in 334 BC, he visited the ruins of the shrine and had it reconsecrated. Then, four years later, when he had marched into Central Asia and crossed the River Oxus, he was astonished to find the distant city where the Branchidae had been settled. For their part, they were delighted to see him. Although they now spoke the local languages as well as Greek, they maintained their ancient Greek customs, and they thought that they would be protected on account of their Greek identity. Yet, some of Alexander’s troops from Miletus were not so sanguine. Some, but by no means all, remembered the betrayal, and wished to take revenge. Since the Milesians were dissenting amongst themselves, Alexander ordered them to desist, and said that he would treat them has he himself saw fit.

The historian Quintus Curtius Rufus continues the story:

“The next day, having met the Branchidae, he ordered them to go with him, and when they had reached the city, he himself entered the gate with a light-armed company. The phalanx was ordered to surround the walls, and, when a signal was given, to plunder the city – a hideout for traitors – and to slaughter them to the last man. The inhabitants were unarmed, and everywhere there was butchery; neither their common language, nor prayers, nor olive branches held out to the attackers were able to prevent the cruelty. At length, so that the walls could be pulled down, their foundations were undermined, so that no even the slightest trace of the city would remain. Moreover, their woods and their sacred groves were not only cut down, but also utterly uprooted, so that, nothing but a vast and sterile desert wilderness would be left behind.”

This deed has been a constant source of horror. Even in the ancient world, it caused unease. Curtius himself said: “If this revenge had been brought against the original authors of the betrayal, it would have been just, and not at all cruel; now, however, people who had never even seen Miletus, were now being compelled to pay for the sins of their forebears.” W.W. Tarn, one of the 20th century’s great admirers of Alexander, tried to argue that the massacre never took place.

However, according to Baumer, a site fitting the description of the Branchidae’s settlement has now been located. The ruins of a fort, Talashkan I, are in the correct position, between the city of Termez on the Oxus and the “Iron Gates” Mountain Passes. A round settlement, with 15 defensive towers, it was built at the start of the 5th century BC, and during the time of Alexander’s conquest burnt down and completely destroyed. It deserves further investigation, but perhaps the site of one of Alexander’s worst crimes has just been found.

What extremist preacher Anjem Choudary got from the Ancient Greeks…

It was reported earlier this week that the extremist preacher, Anjem Choudary, was secretly filmed calling for his followers to live off welfare payments to finance their pursuit of “jihad”. Revered Islamic figures, he is reported as saying, had worked only for a couple of days in the year, being occupied with “jihad and things like that.” It was normal, he claimed, for believers to take money from non-believers, and that they should take a “Jihad-seekers’ allowance” off the British state.

Mr Choudary has railed against “Democracy, freedom, secularism, the parliament, all the MPs and the Presidents” as being ideas manufactured by the “unbelievers” or “kufrs”, and fit only for destruction. Yet, for all his disgust at “un-Islamic” concepts, I rather fear that many of his ideas are in fact inherited from the Ancient Greeks.

In this case, it is his attitude towards work, wealth and poverty. Austin and Vidal-Naquet put the matter succinctly in their Economic History of Ancient Greece. First, in general amongst the Greeks there was no dignity attached to labour. Second, there was a different attitude towards the relationship between work and wealth. In our society, one may be regarded as wealthy if one has more than is necessary to live decently, even if one is compelled to work for this status. Amongst the Ancient Greeks, this was different. “A Greek was wealthy if he could live without having to work, poor if he did not have enough to live on without working.” Thus, one might be affluent, but if one had to work for it, then that was not wealth, but poverty.

Choudary ridicules the daily life of the UK working population: “You find people are busy working the whole of their life. They wake up at 7 o’clock. They go to work at 9 o’clock. They work for eight, nine hours a day. They come home at 7 o’clock, watch EastEnders, sleep, and they do that for 40 years of their life. That is called slavery.” Yet, if an Ancient Greek could be telepored to present-day London, he would undoubtedly say exactly the same. He would go on to reckon Choudary, who receives £25,000 a year in benefits without working, as amongst the wealthy.

If Mr Choudary could be teleported back to 5th century Athens, he would find it surprisingly congenial. The wine-drinking and polytheism might rankle (though by the 5th century the intellectuals thought of the Greek pantheon as a manifestation of a single divine power), but the confinement of women to the house and the monopoly of men over the public sphere would certainly tickle his fancy. And if he were lucky enough to sneak in at the back when Socrates was discussing his ideal of the state (a dialogue immortalised in Plato’s Republic), then he would hear a vision of an anti-democratic totalitarian state ruled by mullah-like philosopher kings where music and theatre were banned. Perhaps Mr Choudary is in fact wearing his huge and unkempt beard as a tribute to Socrates and Plato.

New poems on teaching 1… Clerihew

Some correspondence with one of my old teachers observing that, despite the many holidays with with the profession is blessed, we seem to have so little time, prompted a new Latin verse on the subject, translated into English with a clerihew:

quare mihi, quaeris, semper tot festa magistro?                                                            tunc labor immanis conficiendus erit.

And in English as a Clerihew:

How can we dusty spoiled beaks                                                                                 Take off from school for up to twenty weeks?                                                                 It’s hardly games, I say, or sand or sun:                                                                        We might just hope to get our admin done.