Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Apocolocyntosis - Seneca

As a child Claudius was afflicted with various illnesses that left him physically weak and unsightly. According to Suetonius he had several disagreeable traits which included: an uncontrolled and horrible laugh that was exacerbated by stress, an excessive slobbering and drooling along with a frequently runny nose, a stammer and a persistent nervous tic of the head. His family found him embarrassing and his constant drooling disgusting. They did their best to hide him away but since he wasn’t a risk or a threat they let him live. 

So he spends his life sequestered in a library and reads everything he can get his hands on, and then quietly, while his family is killing each other, he writes. He writes a twenty volume book called Tyrrhenica on the history of the Etruscans. He writes an eight volume book on the history of Carthage. He writes a forty-one volume history of Rome. He writes a book about the art of dice playing and on the defense of Cicero. He had theories on linguistics and attempted to reform the Latin alphabet. Yet, despite his increasing literary accomplishments, he remains the family idiot. Whether through a sense of self preservation or the unfortunate havoc stress wreaks on his body, he is rarely able to string a single thread of coherent words together in the presence of his family. 

Claudius survives the reign of his maternal grand-uncle, Octavian (Augustus) and then his uncle Tiberius and then, against all odds, the reign of his nephew Caligula. He claims he survives by his cunning wit hidden behind a mask of stupidity...but Suetonius has his doubts: “Instead of keeping quiet about his stupidity, Claudius explained, in a number of short speeches, that it had been a mere mask assumed for the benefit of Gaius, and that he owed his life and throne to it. Nobody, however, believed him, and soon a book was published  entitled 'The Fools Rise to Power'; the thesis being that no one would act the fool unless he were a fool already.” 1

Under Caligula things got a little crazy.  Everything became hectic and erratic as the citizenry fought to survive in the harrowing chaos of Caligula’s journey to madness. As Caligula rebirths himself as a God, Claudius is one of the first to prostrate himself in awe at his overwhelming majesty. When Caligula names his horse his first citizen and then a senator and then attempts to give him a consulship, the court looks on with masks of approval hiding their increasing panic. Caligula toys with suppressing Homer, Virgil and Livy and attempts to abolish the legal profession as a whole. He has a spat with Neptune which involves him rallying his troops and declaring war on the sea. 

You would think by comparison Claudius would get a raving review. An emperor with a tendency towards republicanism? What’s not to love? And it seems the people did love him. He was chosen by the Knights twice as the head of the deputation to the Consuls. When he would appear in the theater the "entire Equestrian Order would rise and take off their cloaks as a mark of honor." 2   Yet he is often described as a coward and Suetonius seems to relish the anecdote of his coming to power: 

“When the assassins of Gaius (Caligula) shut everyone out, pretending that he wished to be alone, Claudius went off with the rest and retired to a room called the Hermaeum; but presently heard about the murder and slipped away in alarm to a near-by balcony, where he hid trembling behind the door curtains. A guardsman, wandering vaguely though the Palace, noticed a pair of feet beneath the curtain, pulled their owner out for identification and recognized him. Claudius dropped on the floor and clasped the soldier’s knees, but found himself acclaimed Emperor.” 3 

Slowly his domestic life begins to fall apart. As Livia ruled the caesars before him, Claudius finds himself ruled by his third wife Messalina. She flagrantly carried on affairs beneath his roof and within their matrimonial bed, and at one point while Claudius is away on a trip to Ostia, she marries her lover Silius, publicly celebrating the “full solemnities” of their marriage. 

Claudius, who had surrounded himself with a staff of freedmen, seems to hesitate about the best course of action to take, much to the chagrin of…everyone. His staff are overcome with fear that Claudius will continue to make a mockery of the station of emperor, and as Claudius tries to decide what legal authority Silius now enjoys, the freedmen come up with a plot to oust/murder Messalina. Their biggest obstacle is Claudius’ propensity to forgive Messalina one flagrant indiscretion after another…and getting married to your lover in a public celebration while your husband is away on vacation seems unforgivable. Messalina, begins to realize the severity of her position and pulls out all the stops, making a public profession of regret. She puts on sack cloth and ashes and runs out to meet her husband’s chariot, wringing her hands in grief. 

It seems evident that whatever fervor Claudius momentarily had in his breast is beginning to subside when he sends a message to the now imprisoned “poor woman” telling her she must be present the next day to plead her case. The freedmen are not willing to risk Claudius’ penchant for clemency, and Narcissus bursts into the room and orders the centurion and tribune in attendance to carry out the execution. 

“Now for the first time she saw her situation as it was, and took hold of the steel. In her agitation, she was applying it without result to her throat and again to her breast, when the tribune ran her through.” 4

By far his biggest mistake was his marriage to his fourth wife and power hungry niece Agrippina. He has to massage the red tape a little because while you may get away with anything in the bedroom, on paper incestuous relationships were frowned upon. Also he did himself no favors and made it sound super awkward and gross by referring to her in speeches as “my daughter and foster-child, born and bred in my lap, so to speak.” …yuck. And then he adopts her son, Nero..and things do not bode well for our hero. 

From the beginning Nero’s fate as a demonic tyrant seemed to be pretty much a given. When his horoscope was read to include many ominous predictions, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, Nero’s father said: “that any child of himself and Agrippina was bound to have a detestable nature and become a public danger.” Yes and yes. And before long, after a dinner presumably of mushrooms (read:poison) Claudius loses the power of his speech and after suffering much pain dies shortly before dawn. 

Which brings us to Seneca. 

The Apocolocyntosis is a twelve page Menippean satire that seems to follow Claudius into the afterlife as he navigates his way between heaven and hell. I say “seems to” because…I actually have no idea what this is about. 

Part of this lack of understanding is based on the “how” and “why” of it’s existence. At face value it seems like it was commissioned by Agrippina in that genre of post-dictator-funerary-bashing. Even though Agrippina and Nero had made a show of their grief and mourning and had quickly deified their “victim”, it was still popularly believed that they had also commissioned his murder. Seneca’s brother has a witty little comment that everyone loves to quote about Claudius being dragged to heaven on a hook.

Ok. So Agrippina and Nero murder Claudius and deify him to shore up their legitimacy (and also to assuage the populace who apparently loved him). Then they commission Nero’s tutor to write a bit of ironic defamation to further bolster the credibility of the seventeen year old, who had all the tell tale signs of insanity bequeathed to him by his predecessors. (Suetonius’ short history on Nero reads like the worst version of “America’s Got Talent." Nero thought he had an incredible voice and would give endless recitals during which pregnant women were forced to give birth rather than leave and men would jump out of the window to their death, taking the chance that hell would be a step up…) 

While the authorship is pretty much undisputed, it’s hard to rationalize the same Seneca that gave us Consolatio ad Polybium filled with flatteries of Claudius and his powerful freedmen.

One theory is that it’s an attack on the deification of Claudius specifically because Agrippina sponsored it….and yet there’s nothing really definitive or specific to her. No literary attack that would serve to curb her authority or undermine her power over Nero. The satire also doesn’t mention the presumed death by poisoning. It could also be read as a defense of the perpetrators by quickly glossing over the circumstances of his death and emphasizing the deserved ridicule of the court buffoon. …so is it an attack or defense?

A short recap of the Apocolocyntosis is as follows: Claudius limps onto set, a Quasimodo that leaves Hercules terrified despite his success with other ‘monsters’. He starts mumbling and drooling and eventually manages to quote Homer and Virgil to the gods’ satisfaction. The gods then bring the case of Claudius to the heavenly courts; should he be deified? The prosecution says nay. They can’t let all the riffraff in can they? If all mortals are deified doesn’t that make a mockery of deification? (The title “Apocolocyntosis” pretty much means either “deification of a pumpkin head" or something to that effect.) 

The defense says yay. “Whereas the Divine Claudius is related by blood to both the Divine Augustus and equally to the Divine Augusta, his grandmother, whom he personally had declared a goddess, and whereas he is far superior intellectually to all other mortals, and whereas it is in the interest of the state that there should be someone who can “swallow boiling turnips” with Romulus, I hereby propose that the Divine Claudius be a god from this day forth…”6

Everything seems to be going forward in favor of Claudius, when who should rise against our hero but his own grand-uncle the deified Augustus! As usual it is his family that is disgusted and pained by his existence. He makes his case with anecdotes about his janus nature, incapable of shooing a fly but quick to murder off members of his family. 

“He was also angry with his wife and hung her up. Did he ever kill? You killed Messalina, whose great-great-uncle I was as well as yours. “I don’t know about it,” you say. God damn you! Not knowing about it is worse than killing her!” 7

This seems unfair. Right? I mean…after all the baseless fratricide and familial murder…this one actually seems kind of warranted.

“Do you now want to make this man a god? Look at his body- the gods were angry when it came into the world. In short, let him say three words one after the other and he can drag me off as his slave. Who’s going to worship him as a god? Who’ll believe in him? While you create such gods, no one will believe that you yourselves are gods.”8

Interestingly, this seems to be Claudius’ exact opinion about mere mortals deifying themselves. He believed such things should be left to the gods and at this point after suffering through the reign of Caligula, worshipping the emperors either deceased or living had lost its charm. But instead of the gods making this argument, it’s his old grand-uncle, once more thinking up ways to banish him to some nefarious nether region. 

Augustus ends his argument thus: “I move that he be severely punished, that he be denied any immunity from trial, and that he be deported as soon as possible, leaving heaven within thirty days and Olympus within three.” 

After a brief discussion the gods agree and in a shout-out to Seneca’s brother: 

“Without delay, Mercury seized him, twisting his neck, and hauled him off from heaven to hell.” Not quite on a ‘hook’ but the same general sentiment. He has been found wanting in the Forum and will now be deposited in the river Styx.  

As he makes his way to hell, he’s joined by Narcissus who had allegedly committed suicide after learning of the death of his master. As a faithful freedman he is here to usher Claudius into the underworld, which is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Messalina’s lovers, and leading the pack is lover number one, Gaius Silius. In the center of the crowd is the ballet dancer Mnester, Caligula’s muse and Messalina’s lover number two. The crowd makes up a list of secretaries and army officers and family members most of which in someway or other had their fates sealed by Messalina.

Claudius, momentarily being overwhelmed by the crowd, asks them how it is that they have gotten here, perhaps being unsure of where the ‘here’ is.  

“Pedo Pompeius then spoke: ‘What do you mean, you cruel bastard? You ask how? Who else sent us here but you, you butcher of every friend you had? Let’s go into court. I’ll show you the bench down here.” 9

And once again Claudius faces a tribunal, but this time in hell, and this time more efficient. His indictment is read out: “Executed: 30 Senators, 221 Roman knights and others, and ‘to the number of the grains of sand and the specks of dust”. He is immediately found guilty and the verdict rendered: 

“What thou hast wrought should thou suffer, 
Straight would justice be done.”

They deliberate amongst themselves as to the proper punishment, some useless labor that he will toil aimlessly at for the rest of eternity. He loved playing dice, why not be forced to pick up dice and drop them into a bottomless cup for all eternity; perpetually left to hunt around for the fallen dice…this does have a nice ring to it. At the last minute Caligula shows up and claims Claudius as his slave. This seems fair. The council is given and Claudius is whisked away to spend the rest of eternity as the legal secretary/slave for his deranged nemesis. 

After reading this through about six or seven times I think the general emotion I get from Seneca is rage. Rage and betrayal. After ‘surviving’ against all odds the psychotic breakdown of Caligula, after being the one stable support that Rome seemed to tether herself to under the whims of a crazed tyrant building houses for his horse while systematically murdering everyone…Claudius, the self professed idiot-savant…falls for literally the oldest trick in the book. He walks away from sense and sensibility and becomes blindly infatuated with one woman after another. After watching Livia work her tyrannical powers, you think he would have learned from the side lines. But he lets these women wreak tyranny and cause collateral damage. He removed his son Britannicus from the position of heir apparent and put Agrippina’s son in his place. And ultimately when he began to question this decision he was murdered. And maybe Seneca thinks rightfully so. The job of a leader is to lead the people.The job of a historian is to learn from past mistakes. Claudius did neither. I can almost see Seneca in 45 minutes of exasperation write out this tirade, dripping with frustration and anger. Picking up perpetually falling dice is too good of a punishment. He’s not Sisyphus. He can rot in hell with the man he was almost better than. 

Seneca drops the mic. 

1. Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. 1957. Book V. 38
2. Suetonius, Book V. 6
3. Suetonius, Book V. 10
5. Sullivan, J.P. Petronius: The Satyricon and Seneca: The Apocolocyntosis.  pg 210
6. Sullivan, pg.227
7. Sullivan, pg 228
8. Sullivan, pg 229
9. Sullivan, pg 229

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Satyricon - Petronius

It is not surprising that the Satyrica has a long history as a banned book. Pierre Pithou, a humanist from the 1560’s joked that he kept his copy “in jail”. (1)  In an archaic version of “Words with Friends” Lord Byron had “Codes with Friends” in which quoting portions of the Satyrica became a code for talking about his illicit sexual relationships. That being said, in Amy Richlin's essay “Sex in the Satyrica: Outlaws in Literatureland” she tells students reading Petronius that they are part of a brief moment in history where not only is reading the Satyrica accessible to the masses, (I found my copy for $2 at a thrift shop), but the Satyrica is also being taught to students as a study in literature rather than being sequestered away as corruptible material. 

I’m not going to lie, after reading through the Satyrica I felt fully corrupted. Like Alice in Wonderland crawling through a rabbit hole only to find a world of x-rated Mad Hatters and general obscenity. I needed a guide. And thanks to our modern world of instant gratification I was able to find a digital copy of Petronius: A Handbook, edited by Jonathan Prag and Ian Repath almost instantaneously. I found this book to be invaluable. It is comprised of twelve essays that cover everything from contemporary architecture: “Freedmen’s Cribs: Domestic Vulgarity on the Bay of Naples” by Shelley Hales, to mortality in “At Home with the Dead: Roman Funeral Traditions and Trimalchio’s Tomb” by Valerie Hope. So good. 

Ok, here we go. 

It is largely agreed that Petronius was the author of the Satyrica and a courtier of Nero. Upon gaining entry to Nero's coterie he became known as the “Arbiter of Elegance”. Tacitus mentions in his Annals that Petronius became more and more indispensable to Nero, until “in the end Nero’s jaded appetite regarded nothing as enjoyable or refined unless Petronius had given his sanction to it.” Here’s Tacitus’ review: 

“Gaius Petronius deserves a further brief notice. He spent his days sleeping and his nights working and enjoying himself. Industry is the usual foundation of success, but with him it was idleness. Unlike most people who throw away their money in dissipation, he was not regarded as an extravagant sensualist, but as one who made luxury a fine art. His conversation and his way of life were unconventional with a certain air of nonchalance and they charmed people all the more by seeming so unstudied…” (Annals 16.18)

So what kind of book would a Neronian arbiter of elegance write? A very, very complicated one. First of all what makes matters difficult for the modern reader is that what we have are fragments, roughly three books out of a potential twenty-four. The Satyrica begins almost mid sentence and we have to race to catch up with protagonists that always seem one step ahead, weaving from one reference to another, throughout a web of literary obfuscations. It is a satire about satires, a comic epic that destructs cultural norms and literary expectations.

Our protagonists are an awkward love triangle comprised of Encolpius, Giton and Ascyltus. They live outside the law, (❡125.4) and outside the normative cultural positions of slave/free, man/woman.  Ultimately, Encolpius is on a quest in search of his lost virility and his wayward lover, while the other two seem along for the ride. When the narrative opens, Encolpius is at a school of rhetoric with his teacher Agamemnon, yet it is the student we hear from first: 

“…I’m sure the reason such young nitwits are produced in our schools is because they have no contact with anything of any use in everyday life. All they get is pirates standing on the beach, dangling manacles, tyrants writing orders for sons to cut off their father’s heads, oracles advising the sacrifice of three or more virgins during a plague - a mass of cloying verbiage: every word, every move just so much poppycock. (❡1.1) (2)

While Encolpius’ complaint references those made by Seneca, this isn’t a philosophical treatise but rather the voice of a jaded student thinking up ways to prove there’s no point to learning so he can selfishly go back to his personal quest.  In an almost modern complaint he says it’s the parents that are to blame, they rush their children through their studies when they are still young and frivolous. If only the parents would allow their children to mature to a point where they are intellectually capable of appreciating the “noble art of oratory” then this honorable art would have its true weight and dignity. Within the next paragraph the framework begins to emerge. This book will be a playful criticism of everything held dear, nothing will escape the brutal wit of the narrator. 

“Your smooth and empty sound effects provided a few laughs, and as a result you took the guts out of real oratory, and that was the end of it. Young men were not tied down to rhetorical exercises when it was Sophocles or Euripides who developed the proper language for them. Academic pedants had not addled their wits when Pindar and the nine lyric poets shrank away from the Homeric style. And apart from the poets I can cite, I certainly cannot see Plato or Demosthenes going in for this sort of training.” (❡2)

What Petronius is about to do will make Plato roll over in his grave. He is about to systematically destroy everything sacred in a brilliant and hilarious way. A way that is without precedent or genre. In book III of the Republic, Socrates talks about how to tell stories, what meters to use, what meters to avoid, but most importantly he fundamentally forbids the artist or poet to represent characters that are vicious, unrestrained, slavish and graceless. He’s pretty specific, in a hyper controlling kind of way.

Petronius breaks everything apart. He not only combines poetry and prose, but he combines meters as well. He mixes iambic and hexameters within the same poem, which becomes an inside joke for the contemporary literati. When it is at last Agamemnon’s time to respond to Encolpius’s accusations he does so through poetry, saying “Just to show you how I’m not above a bit of low-level improvisation in the manner of Lucilius, I’ll throw you off a few lines expressing my feelings…” what follows is a mash-up of iambic and hexameters. The joke is that while Lucilius did write in different meters, we have no evidence that he did so within the same poem. And therefore the poem is completely un-Lucilian. (3)  The joke follows a thematic trail throughout the Satyrica of the uneducated posing as educated. It is grandiose posturing on a Neronian scale. 

After a description of the appropriate meter and mode for the most manly and heroic themes, Plato goes on to discuss the correct relationship between a boy and a man. The teacher/student relationship is sacred. It is not to be erotic and passionate but pure and chaste.  Petronius’ heroes are unrestrained, slavish and graceless and make fun of sexually normative behaviors. They are anything but chaste.

Giton to Encolpius: So thank you for loving me in such an honorable Platonic way. Alcibiades himself couldn’t have been safer when he slept in his teacher’s bed.” 

Encolpius to Giton: Honestly, dear lad, I can’t realize I’m a man, I don’t feel it. The part of my body that once made me an Achilles is dead and buried. (❡128-129)

I mentioned Encolpius’ quest above. Another genre that Petronius plays around with is the epic. Homeric references saturate the text and the Satyrica can be read as “sustained rewriting of the Odyssey". (4) Just as Ulysses faces the wrath of Poseidon after killing his son the cyclops, Encolpius faces the wrath of Priapus after desecrating a sacred ritual. 

Side note: Priapus is the guardian of the gardens and he protects his property with his huge erection, threatening to rape any attempting thieves. So…yikes. 

Priapus thwarts Encolpius’s romantic success at every turn ending in the sustained impotence of our hero. But while Ulysses is the penultimate masculine hero, Encolpius is effeminate, and frequently confused for a prostitute. While Ulysses is married to the faithful Penelope, Giton is hardly a faithful lover, the only absolute being his predictable fickleness. The majority of the humor focuses on Encolpius constantly losing Giton to Ascyltus and many others, both men and women. Again and again Encolpius tends to “epicize” his own non-adventures. 

When Encolpius gives Giton the choice between himself or Ascyltus, without much of a thought, “before the last syllable is out of his mouth” Giton picks Ascyltus. As the two wander away, Encolpius is wracked in grief. He packs up his belongings and spends three days in a quiet place along the seafront mourning the loss of his beloved. As he struggles to come to terms in his classically histrionic way he ponders how this has happened and who has done this to him: 

“…who brought this loneliness upon me? An adolescent wallowing in every possible filth, who even on his own admission had been rightly run out of town, free - for sex, freeborn, for sex, whose youth you’d buy with a ticket, who had been hired as a girl even by someone who thought he was a male. As for the other one! Putting on women’s clothes the day he became a man, talked into effeminacy by his mother, doing only women’s work in the slave pen, and after he couldn’t meet his debts and had to change his sexual ground, he abandoned the claims of an old friendship and - in the name of decency! - sold out everything like a whore on the strength of a one night stand.” (❡81)

It’s not clear whom each epithet belongs to. The descriptions seem to fit all three reasonably well. When Encolpius decides to rouse himself for battle and fight for his ‘Penelope’, he girds his loins, puts on his belt, grabs his sword and races to the market prepared to wreak havoc along the way. This is his most soldierly and heroic behavior. When a soldier seeing the rage and hell bent blood and destruction written all over his face he asks for the name of his regiment. Encolpius lies, thinking he has perpetrated a successful deception. The soldier then asks him if it’s normal for the soldiers in his regiment to walk around in slippers? And Encolpius realizes the ruse is up. He walks away, almost thankful that he didn't have to injure someone (most likely himself) with his soldiering. 

By far, the most famous portion of the Satyrica is Dinner with Trimalchio, where the three heroes make there way for a free dinner. This is where Petronius riff's on Horace (Dinner with Nasidienus 2.8), and this is where the narrative becomes the most elaborate and cacophonous. Everything drips and glitters with garish theatric stage appeal. Trimalchio is a self made man (a slave that slowly earned his way to the top) and he’s proud of his prodigious wealth. The definition of satiric elegance, with a clock that ticks away telling him how much longer he has to live. 

The three find themselves at the bath with their soon to be host, who is involved in all sorts of glamorous and esoteric sporting endeavors surrounded by a host of “long haired boys” (capillati) and eunuchs. A friend runs up and tells them that this bald old man in the red shirt is their host and they watch in amazement as:

“…Trimalchio snapped his fingers. At the signal the eunuch brought up the pissing bottle for him, while he went on playing, With the weight off his bladder he demanded water for his hands, splashed a few drops on his fingers and wiped them on a boy’s head…
[they all go into the bath and Trimalchio gets smothered in perfume while his masseurs drink and spill Falernian wine]

Wrapped in this scarlet felt he was put into a litter. Four couriers with lots of medals went in front, as well as a go-kart in which his favorite boy was riding, a wizened , bleary-eyed youngster, uglier than his master. As he was carried off, a musician with a tiny set of pipes took his place by Trimalchio’s head and whispered a tune in his ear the whole way.

"We followed on, choking with amazement by now, and arrived at the door with Agamemnon at our side.” (❡27-28)

Already our protagonists have witnessed the hight of self congratulatory conceit. Trimalchio makes a triumphal procession the short distance to his front door, glorying in his as of yet unattained victory. Besides taking a bath he has little to be “triumphant” about. This is reminiscent of Nero, the emperor without militaristic prowess. His victories were over “musicians, poets and playwrights, epitomes of high culture rather than barbarians.” (5) Oh yes, and family members. Tacitus mentions (Annals 14.13) the people lining up to watch Nero’s triumphal entry after murdering his mother…

After contemplating the murals decorating the entrance of Trimalchio’s mansion, which include signage that reads: “Any slave leaving the house without his master’s permission will receive one hundred lashes” and “Beware of Dog” the three enter a literary hall of mirrors, surrounded by guests representing the poverty of high culture. (The “Beware of Dogs” sign is a throw back to “Virgil’s Cerberus, who guards the gates of Hades (Virgil Aen. 6.417-23) The allusion makes explicit that dining at Trimalchio’s is a living hell.” (6)

As one would expect, working for Nero was perilous and unpredictable. Eventually Petronius’ popularity lead to a jealous rival, Tigellinus, who sewed seeds of discord and manipulated the emperor’s penchant for cruelty. 

Side note: Nero forced his tutor and advisor Seneca to commit suicide for his alleged complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy. Seneca’s grandson Lucan after a brief literary success was also accused of treason (this time accurately) and forced to commit suicide as well at the age of 25. Nero himself was a self professed actor, poet, musician and charioteer and did not share the spotlight well. It was a dangerous time to be a literary man. 

So according to Tacitus (Annals 16.19):

“Petronius got as far as Cumae and was prevented from going any further. He refused to prolong the suspense that hope or fear involved. Not that he was hasty in taking leave of his life. On the contrary, he opened his veins and then, as the fancy took him, he bound them up or re-opened them, and all the while talked with his friends, but not on serious topics or anything calculated to win admiration for his courage..simply gay songs and light verses. He dealt out rewards to some of his slaves and floggings to others. He began a lavish dinner and took a nap, so that his death, although forced on him, should appear natural. Even in the codicils of his will he refused to flatter Nero or Tigellinus or anyone else powerful. Instead he wrote out a full description of the Emperor’s vicious activities, giving the names of his male and female partners and specifying the novel forms his lust had taken…”

And from Pliny the Elder (Natural History 37.20): 

“T. Petronius, a consular, when he was going to die through Nero’s malice and envy, broke his fluorspar wine dipper so that the Emperor’s table would not inherit it. It had cost 300,000 sesterces.” 

In a world where daily survival took risk and intrigue, Petronius created a world to hide inside, a jest within a jest, a hall of mirrors, which allowed him to simultaneously critique his contemporaries and poke fun of everything else. In the end, life will be short and your fate will be in the hands of pernicious and vindictive gods. So like Trimalchio, Petronius rose a glass and surrounded himself with songs and light verses as he took his last breath:

‘What comes next you never know, 
Lady Luck runs the show,
So pass the Falernian, lad.”

1. Richlin, Amy. "Sex in the Satyrica: Outlaws in Literatureland."Petronius: A Handbook, edited by Jonathon Prag and Ian Repath, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 
2. All Satyrica quotes are from Sullivan 1965
3. Slater, Niall W. "Reading the Satyrica." Petronius: A Handbook, edited by Jonathon Prag and Ian Repath, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
4. Andreau, Jean. "Freedmen’s Cribs: Domestic Vulgarity on the Bay of Naples." Ibid. 
5. Klebs, E. 1889. Ibid. 
6. Vout, Caroline. "The Satyrica and Neronian Culture." Ibid. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Complete Poems of Sappho

Sappho: (born 630 BC) Daughter of Simon or Eumenos or Eerigyios or Ecrytos or Semos or Camon or Etarchos or Skamandronymos. Her mother was Cleis. She was a woman of the island of Lesbos, from the town of Eresus, and was a poet of the lyre.She flourished during the 42nd Olympic games, when Alcaues, Stesichorus, and Pittacus were also living. Her three brothers were Larches, Charades, and Ergyius. She was married to a very wealthy man named Cerkylas who traded from the island of Andros. Her daughter was Cleis. She had three companions and friends named Atthis, Telesipps, and Megera, but her relations with them earned her a shameful reputation. Her pupils were Angora of Miletus, Gongyla of Colophon and Eunica of Salamis. She composed nine books of lyric songs and invented the plectrum. She also composed epigrams, elegiac verse, iambic poetry and solo songs. 
 -Suda Encyclopedia (Tenth Century AD) 1

At face value it seems like we’re unsure of Sappho’s paternity; she has some girl friends that got her into trouble; she was a prolific writer, and contributed three major inventions to the lyrical/ musical world: the plectron, the pektis and the mixolydian mode. Upon further review, we realize that the name of her husband is actually a dirty joke, Cerkylas of Andros being loosely translated as “Prick from the Isle of Man.”2  Almost everything we know of her is suspect except for her own words and of these we have roughly one percent in fragmentary form and only one poem, "The Ode to Aphrodite" in its entirety. She is more of an enigma than anything else. 

I say “suspect” because many of her contemporary male writers were not huge fans. Since there was no way to refute her talent, her ancient contemporaries often slandered her. “She was called a prostitute and mocked on stage as immoral. And in a world where males prized a woman’s fair skin and well shaped form, second only to her modesty, she was described as short, dark, and ugly, even though the earliest portraits of her on vases portray a beautiful woman.” 3  Lucian describes her as a “nightingale with deformed wings enfolding a tiny body.” A rumor was spread that she jumped off a cliff because of the unrequited love of the boatman Phaon. Tough crowd. 

Return, Gongyla - Fragment 22

A deed
your lovely face

if not, winter
and no pain

I bid you, Abathis, 
take up the lyre
and sing of Gongyla as again desire 
floats around you

the beautiful. When you saw her dress
it excited you. I’m happy.
The Kypros-born once
blamed me

for praying 
this word: 
I want 

Willis Barnstone (2006) 

By the time we get to the first century AD, Seneca seems exhausted by the endless uninformed besmirching.

The grammarian Didymus wrote four thousand books. I would pity anyone who simply had to read so many supremely empty works. Among his book he inquires about the birthplace of Homer, the real mother of Aeneas, whether Sappho was a prostitute,and other things which you ought to forget if you know them. And then people complain that life is short. 
-Seneca Letters to Lucile's Ep.88

Ann Carson echoes Seneca when talking about Sappho’s sexuality: “Controversies about her personal ethics and way of life have taken up a lot of people’s time throughout the history of Sapphic scholarship. It seems that she knew and loved women a deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there?”4  Carson thinks such inquiries are merely a modern obsession that have little place and add little value to the discussion.

Despite the frenzy of intrigue she created, and of which we have an historical breadcrumb trail, she also left a trail of admirers. Her work is astounding. Plato calls her the Tenth Muse, and even our misogynistic friend Aristotle has to concede that she has earned her place in history as wise and honored, “although she was a woman.” (Aristotle Rhetoric 1398B)

In a world where everything from Homer to Augustine was written by men, what Sappho did was significant. Sappho provided a window into the lives of her contemporary fellow women, her poems brought the epic narrative into the home and took their place at the hearth. They are poems of friendship and love, desire and heartache. 

Ode to Aphrodite - Fragment 1

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break my heart

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father’s
golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you, 
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
through midair-

they arrived. But you, O blessed one, 
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging  you?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them. 
If she does not love, soon she will love 
even unwillingly. 

Come to me now: loose me from hard 
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish, You 
be my ally. 

(Ann Carson, 2002)

In this prayer, not only is Sappho placing herself within the confines of the poem, the object of her desire and the deity she prays to are both women. Within the confines of this safe place she pours out her heart and her longings to the goddess, whom she has an obvious relationship with. And gently, almost like a mother hen, Aphrodite responds with humor and compassion. Again she comes to Sappho’s aid. Again she is called upon to help Sappho restore a broken heart and unrequited love, as an ally, as a comrade in arms. Even against her will Aphrodite will do this thing, and the sixth stanza becomes almost an incantation. A magical love potion. 

Interesting side note: Not only was Aphrodite worshipped as a goddess of war, but she was also the patron goddess of prostitution. And it was also a spat between Aphrodite, Athena and Hera that lead to the Trojan War. 

According to Philip Freeman “Most of her poems are songs of love wholly unlike the epics of Homer, who lived in the century before her. Gone are the blood and glory of the Trojan War and the monster-battling adventures of Odysseus. Instead, the verses of Sappho are deeply personal and celebrate the joys and agony of the human heart.” (Searching for Sappho, xvii) 

While this is true in a way, both the Trojan War and monsters still find their way into her world, but from an entirely different view point. The Trojan War is referenced constantly but from a distance, such as in poems about the wedding of Hector and Andromache or the beauty of Helen. The monsters of Homer become the nightmares of children, as the monster Gello haunts all the little children, snatching them away to their death.  

What Sappho does is change the perspective. The magnifying glass zooms in on the life and context of Homer, but then focuses on the unlikely subject of women and children, who in that day and age were only marginally separated. According to Hesiod, the best age for marriage for a young woman was four to five years after puberty, but girls from wealthy families tended to get married even younger, some as early as twelve or thirteen. Even when Plato and Aristotle encouraged families to wait at least until the Spartan custom of eighteen, this suggestion was largely overlooked. In this sense the very really monsters where not the ones far off on a distant shore but the ones between the bedsheets. While there is no way to ascertain the childbirth mortality rate, it would have been high. 

Many of Sappho’s poems would have been sung at weddings. They were performance pieces, and at times both celebratory and mournful. Between the lines (or fragments) is a world where women were esteemed slightly higher than the family ox; an almost invisible world of pain and heartache and fear. 

Walking to a Wedding - Fragment 27 

Yes you were once a child
come sing these things
talk to us and give us 
your grace

We are walking to a wedding, and surely 
you know too, but quickly as you can 
send the young virgins away. May gods

Yet for men      road to
great Olympus 

Willis Barnstone (2006)

During the Renaissance two of Sappho’s poems, “Seizure” (Fragment 31) and “The Ode to Aphrodite” (Fragment 1) were included by Longinos in his essay On The Sublime and Dionysius On Literary Composition. Besides these two poems, for more than two thousand years, the works and writings of Sappho had almost completely disappeared. Then, in 1896, two archeology students from Oxford, discovered a cache of papyrus scraps in an ancient cemetery in the city of Oxyrhynchus, and since then there as been a fairly exciting trickle of discoveries, the most recent being the discovery of the “Brothers Poem” in 2012. 

My introduction to Sappho was through Willis Barnstone’s translation and I was completely blown away. Here’s his translation of fragment 88a:

As Long As There is Breath - Fragment 88

You might wish 
a little
to be carried off

you also know


and would say
I shall love   as long as there is breath in me 
and care
I say I have been a strong lover

and know this

no matter
I shall love

Willis Barnstone (2006)

But then to round it out I read Ann Carson’s translation and a completely different view emerged. What Barnstone had rendered as being legible, Carson leaves with the footprint of the illegible. These are after all fragments, and so much of the translation has to do with how each word is not only translated but stitched together with the fragments surrounding it. Here’s Carson’s version: 




shall love



]in front

]you would be willing
]to be carried

]more sweetly
]and you yourself know

]someone would say

]and yes I
]as long as there is breath in me
]will be a care

]I say I have been a strong lover

To echo Strabo, Sappho is an amazing thing. She is the poet for anyone who has ever been in love or suffered loss. She speaks of the joy of the dawn, in a world where each day was governed by the goddess Fortuna, the goddess of fate, where life slips through your fingers and the years slip away, and your knees refuse to dance. In a world of pain and heartache her poetry is breathtakingly immortal. 

Seizure - Fragment 31

He seems to me equal to the gods,
that man who sits opposite you
and listens near
to your sweet voice

and lovely laughter. My heart
begins to flutter in my chest. 
When I look at you even for a moment. 
I can no longer speak. 

My tongue fails and a subtle
fire races beneath my skin, 
I see nothing with my eyes
and my ears hum

Sweat pours from me and a trembling
seizes my whole body. I am greener
than grass and it seems I am a little 
of dying

But all must be endured, for even a poor

Philip Freeman (2016)

The raw emotions and the physicality of this poem are almost visceral. Philip Freeman dives into her language and finds interesting comparisons again between the language of Sappho and that of Homer: 

“First her heart begins to flutter. Sappho was not the earliest to imply this motif; Homer uses the same Greek word (ptoeo, “to flutter, fly away”) to describe the emotions of Penelope’s suitors in the Odyssey, as does Alcaeus when he says Helen was overcome by her lover, Paris. This is not just a quaint metaphor, but a physical description of a heart set racing by passion and pounding wildly in the poet’s chest.” 5

While modern readers might miss the extreme eroticism of the final stanzas…it gets pretty intense. 

Sappho is using language previously reserved for warfare. The word to describe her weakening tongue is the same word Homer uses to describe “a chariot falling to pieces on the battlefield.” 6  Her language is militaristic, because the boundaries between love and war at times are murky, and as a woman, she is positioning herself from a vantage point where despite never fighting a battle with shields and swords, she is living one every day. 

To a Woman of No Education - Fragment 55 

When you lie dead no one will remember
or long for you later. You do not share the roses 
of Pieria. Unseen here and in the house of Hades, 
flown away, you will flitter among the dim corpses. 

Willis Barnstone (2006)


1. Freeman, Philip. Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet. New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. pg. xi
2. Campbell, David, ed. Greek Lyric Poetry: A Selection. London: Macmillan, 1967. 5n. 4.

3. Freeman, Philip. Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet. New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. pg. xxi
4. Carson, Anne. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. pg.12
5. Freeman, Philip. Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet. New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. pg. 123
6. Ibid. 

Reading List:

Searching For Sappho - Philip Freeman 
The Complete Poems of Sappho - Willis Barnstone 

The Apocolocyntosis - Seneca

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