Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Satires of Persius

In high school my sister and I took a community college English class together. As somewhat sheltered homeschoolers this was the big time. We were surrounded by worldly and knowledgable people; we held our own and tried to convince ourselves we weren’t socially awkward. 

One of the short stories we had to read and discuss was “The Rocking Horse Winner” (1926) by D.H. Lawrence. The basic plot is this: a family is struggling financially, the mother insists it’s because they are unlucky, she has thrown away her life on a worthless man and now she’s trapped in a house that whispers “More money! There must be more money!” Her son attempts to rectify the situation by betting on horse races. Luckily he has a little trick up his sleeve that involves riding his rocking-horse into a moment of ecstasy when the name of the next winner is revealed. This works! He starts surreptitiously giving his mother his winnings, but her response is to become even more avaricious. Her hunger for more drives him into a frenzy of rocking-horse riding…that eventually leads to him once again picking a winner and simultaneously dying of brain fever. So in a nutshell, this is a didactic lesson on the danger of chasing after wealth that is forever just outside your grasp. 

I was young and innocent. In class when lewd suggestions were made about Paul’s rocking-horse business, I stood up and eloquently defended him. There was nothing untoward about rocking yourself into a trance. Totally normal behavior. Here’s a quote: 

“When he had ridden to the end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking horse, starring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy bright.” 

(Side note: D.H. Lawrence isn’t really known for chaste and innocent writing. The Rainbow (1915) was censured after an obscenity trial and over one thousand copies were seized and destroyed…) 

I refused to read anything sexual between the lines. I think my professor probably thought I was adorably naive. His response to my tirade was something along the lines of “…huh..” Still, there’s a difference between being naive and innocent, and willfully obtuse. And this is the accusation Persius makes against the Roman aristocracy. 

Like Paul, riding his rocking-horse into a state of “frenzy”, Persius argues that Nero has rode the aristocracy into a paroxysm of debauchery and moral debasement. The aristocracy aren’t innocent bystanders, they are complicit. And after each “riding” they emphatically beg for more. 

First, a little context. It’s 59 AD, and Nero has finally become a man. He’s been the caesar for the last five years, but there’s been rumors that he’s been entirely controlled by his mother, Agrippina, and the rumors aren’t hard to believe. (One of his first acts, after deifying his uncle Claudius, whom he was rumored to have poisoned with mushrooms, was to elect his mother “The Best of Mothers” and leave all “public and private affairs to her capable hands.”1) But it’s November and his Mother has been dead since March, when he had her murdered, and now it’s time to celebrate the trimming of his first beard hair. The celebration commences with a bit of poetry as Nero takes his place among the gods. The most distinguished of citizens were “offered” compulsory participation in his Juvenilia and those that weren’t debasing themselves on the stage were fighting each other in the stands for the bits and bobbles being thrown at them. To get on his bad side all one needed to do was applaud slightly less emphatically than everyone else. 

Suetonius says that at first Nero practiced his vices with reserve. He was seventeen when appointed caesar, and more interested in singing and preening than affairs of state. But now, five years later, he has come into his own. Convinced like many of his predecessors that he is a god, Apollo himself, his compulsory hero worship takes a turn for the worse. 

“His vices gaining strength by degrees, he laid aside his jocular amusements and all disguise; breaking into enormous crimes, without the least attempt to conceal them.” 2

“Besides the abuse of free-born lads, and the debauch of married women, he committed a rape upon Rubria, a Vestal Virgin. He was upon the point of marrying Acte, his freedwomen, having suborned some men of consular rank to swear that she was of royal descent. He gelded the boy Sporus, and endeavored to transform him into a woman. He even went so far as to marry him, with all the usual formalities of a marriage settlement, the rose-colored nuptial veil, and numerous company at the wedding. When the ceremony was over, he had him conducted like a bride to his own house and treated him as his wife. It was jocularly observed by some person, ‘that it would have been well for mankind, had such a wife fallen to the lot of his father Domitius.’ This Sporus, he carried about with him in a litter round the column assemblies and fairs of Greece, and afterwards at Rome through the Sigillaria, dressed in the rich attire of an empress; kissing him from time to time as they rode together…” 3

I’m leaving so much out…but the point has been made. He has insulted the gods by raping a vestal virgin, he has insulted societal decorum by his attempt to marry a freedwoman and he has insulted nature with his marriage to Sporus. His absolute power has quickly led to absolute corruption. And yet the people do nothing! They cheer for the newlyweds, they attend his poetry recitations and applaud, (granted there are five thousand “Augustan” soldiers making sure the crowd appropriately responds…but still.) (According to Dio the citizens were supposed to follow the lead of the soldiers/cheerleaders and proclaim: “Hurrah for Caesar! He’s Apollo! Augustus! A match for the Pythian himself! We swear by your own self, O Caesar, no one defeats you!”) 4

And this is where Persius comes in. In his prologue he immediately gets to the point: 

That’s not how I suddenly became a poet,
By wetting my lips in the Hippocrene, 
Or dreaming on the twin peaks of Parnassus
I leave the Muses, and Pirene’s pale
Spring, to those with busts to which
A crown of ivy clings; a semi-pagan
I bring my song to the bards’ holy rites.
What teaches the parrot to squawk: “Hello!”
And urges the magpie to try human speech? 
Hunger, that master of arts, and dispenser of skills, 
For if there’s the gleam of a hope of crafty gain, 
You’ll hear crow-poets and magpie-poetesses
Singing in praise of Pegasian nectar. 
[Persius, Prologue to the Satires. Translated by A.S. Kline, 2011]

Unlike Hesiod, who tends his sheep and then is visited by the Muses; a mortal, handpicked by the gods to reveal the creation of the world, Persius is driven by a different muse, hunger. Not physical hunger, but moral emaciation. Helikon (the mountain of Hesiod’s Muses) has been replaced by the twin peaks of Parnassus, sacred to Apollo and Dionysus - the gods of poetic inspiration. Only, Nero has elbowed Apollo out of the way, so in Persius’ retelling it is Nero in the mist and haze waiting to reveal his cosmogenic reality, but Persius walks the other way. The crown of ivy no longer represents victory and honor, but moral turpitude. The aristocracy has lost respectability, toadying to a monster for the chance to live another day in a modicum of pleasure. In this world, the only way to survive is to become semi-pagan. All worship has become corrupted, the gods have become a laughing stock, and either they exist and don’t care (allowing their vestal virgins to be raped with impunity without lightning striking from heaven) or they have left long ago. 

Here stands Persius, a lonely poet, hemmed in on every side with vice and corruption. Juvenal summarizes the zeitgeist under Domitian in a similar way, arguing that when morality has been tossed in the bin and “Flabby impotence takes him a wife…etc” (J.S.1.19-50) -to not write satire is what comes hard. He has been driven to write by the incomprehensible wickedness that permeates everything. Like Juvenal and Horace and the rest of the Roman satirists, Persius is compelled to write, it is his civic duty. 

Satire 1
-O troubled humanity! O the emptiness of life! 
-Who wants to read about that? 
-Are you asking me? No one, by Hercules!
-No one? 
-No one or two. 
-That’s wretched pathetic. 
-Why? Because the noble ‘Trojans’ and their women 
Happen to prefer Attius Labeo’s Iliad to my verse? 
Nonsense. If turbid Rome weighs something lightly
Don’t go looking for fault in the scales, don’t look 
Beyond yourself…

He begins with his accusation: Rome is too busy hellenizing itself to realize there’s a moral famine. They have become obsessed with all things Trojan, not the Homeric version, but rather the hack-poet version of Labeo who has translated the Iliad into Latin and spoon fed it to the masses. 

A great example of this is Petronius’ Satyricon. Everyone is constantly referencing the Iliad, but out of context and incorrectly. Everything is a farce. It’s a psychedelic world of crazy, where name dropping Homer moves you one seat closer to the place of honor at a dinner that is more like a musical comedy. 

Kirk Freudenburg says this about Persius: “He alerts us to the problem in the opening lines of his first hexameter poem. Labeo’s tight Latin translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, he tells us, are all the rage, a quick and easy Homeric fix for upwardly mobile Romans who have fallen behind in their Greek; all those “Polydamases” and “Trojan Women” who cannot manage their Homer in the original.” 5

Why is this significant? Because saturated in the cult of Troy they have forgotten themselves. The scales are broken. The Delphic oracle is suppressed, there is no desire to “know thyself”…the only desire is to stroke along with the current of popular trends. To survive. 

But Persius argues that this is not survival. They have lost their moral compass, that have lost the ability for thoughtful criticism that comes only with painstaking work. They have taken the easy road and it has led to moral prostitution. 

Neatly, in a white toga, wearing your birthday ring
Of sardonyx, you’ll read to the audience from your 
Tall seat, while you gargle with water to rinse your
Fickle throat, your expressive [ejaculating] eyes moved to tears
Then you’ll watch as grown men tremble, their sober
Manner and tranquil voices gone, as your poetry stirs
Their loins, your rhythmic verse works away inside. 
So, old man, you compose tit-bits, for other’s ears
To make even your decrepit skin and bones cry “Stop!” 

Freudenburg has an amazing take on all of this: “But what, from one angle, looks like an exciting new world of governance and good taste, with emperor and aristocrats performing “in concert” to the rhythms of Nero’s pounding new beat, from another angle, Persius’ angle, looks like nothing more than a cheap pornographic sideshow featuring Nero’s outsized dick performing spectacular feats of multiple-penetration on Rome’s eager and amazingly orgasmic aristocracy. It is a jarring spectacle, hard to look at.” 6

Yikes? (I’ve come a long way since the “Rocking-Horse Winner…) 

The rest of Satire 1 deals with the problem of what to do in a world where criticism is dead and everyone is too afraid to tell the truth. 

Then say ‘I love the truth, tell me the truth about myself.
How can I? Do you want me to say you’re talking rubbish,
Baldy, you with your fat belly sticking out a foot and a half? 

The safer course is to only speak truth behind the back of your patron and those in power. (Patronage destroys the ability to speak truth objectively.) Juvenal comes up with another option: only lampoon those who have been dead for a long time, but even this plan is not failsafe. His criticisms of the dead seem a bit too contemporary and he is exiled by Domitian until Nerva becomes emperor. 

Truth telling always comes with a risk. The very thing that drove Persius to begin his project, hunger, ironically will be the thing that keeps the populace trapped. The risk of becoming hungry is too much to bear. So they continue to flatter, they deify Nero and tell him he’s the best they’ve ever had. There’s too much risk in alienating a matricidal tyrant, alienation means no invitation to dinner. 

While it’s tempting to read Petronius as a veiled critique of all things Neronian…Freudenburg and others argue that is too simplistic. There’s another person, standing off in the shadows of hypocrisy. 


In “The Apocolocyntosis” Seneca writes a bit of eulogy propaganda. After being banished by Claudius, Agrippina had called him back to be her son’s tutor. Now Claudius is dead and although Nero has deified him Seneca writes a short story that throws him into hell as the perpetual secretary of Caligula. Poetic justice is served. 

Or is it? One of the fathers of stoicism has tutored the world’s most un-stoic tyrant. Seneca teaches everything in moderation; Nero’s life is a study in excess. Nero has showed himself an unruly pupil, but what Seneca has become is worse. Remember the Juvenilia? Taking his place beside Nero on stage stood Seneca and Burrus. Dio writes: “like teachers, prompting him (Nero); they would wave their arms and togas at every utterance of his and lead others to do the same.”  7

Seneca has lost his credibility and it won’t be long before he takes his place in the long list of compulsive suicides. In the end the question becomes: what drives a person to debase themselves? What whispers haunt them, driving them on until they become unrecognizable? Is it the whispering voice of “More money! There must be more money!” Or during the mercurial reign of tyrants is it “More life! Anything for one more day!” When the poets and philosophers have become little more than “crow-poets and magpie-poetesses” pecking at shiny objects there is no one left to speak truth. 

Foot notes:
2. Suetonius, V.XXVII
3. Suetonius V.XXVIII
5. Freudenburg, Kirk. Satires of Rome: Threatening poses from Lucilius to Juvenal. Cambridge University Press, 2001
6. Ibid. 

The Satires of Persius 
Politics and Invective in Persius and Juvenal 
Nero: The End of a Dynasty 
The Rocking Horse Winner 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Hesiod - Works and Days

At the end of the Theogony, the genealogies of heroes emerge and begin to cement themselves into the histories of men. Hesiod has moved beyond the tradition of a local cult into a larger myth, creating a new story for a Panhellenic people. The most powerful families of Greece will trace their lineage to the age of Heroes and legitimize their divine authority to rule.

Now in Works and Days Hesiod circles back to discuss the origin of humans. There have been five different ages, five attempts at human creation, all of which have failed for a variety of different reasons. At the end of each epoch, each failure is destroyed or subsumed and the gods plunge their hands once more into the primordial sludge to begin again.

The first race of men, the Golden Age, was an age of ‘articulate folks’ that lived like Gods, ‘nothing to do with hard work or grief.’ [134] This Golden Age of men lacked the ability to reproduce, and having not been given the gift of immortality they died and were covered by the Earth. Because of their near perfection they became holy spirits and now take their place as invisible wardens for the whole human race. 

They roam all over the land, shrouded in mist,
Tending to justice, repaying criminal acts. 
And dispensing wealth. This is their royal honor. 

The Olympians tried their hand at human generation again, this time with the Silver Age. They compensated for the singular flaw of the Golden Age by creating a race of men that could procreate, but this time the race is infantile and weak, being nursed by their mothers for a hundred years only to live a short and futile adulthood. The pacifism of the golden age has been replaced by fratricide:

They did not live very long, and pain at that,
Because of their lack of wits. They just 
could not stop hurting each other and could not bring themselves
To serve the Immortals, nor sacrifice at their altars
The way men ought to, wherever and whenever. 

Zeus, angered by their incompetence and their refusal/ inability to worship the gods, does away with the race, yet due to their simplicity they are not cast into Hades, but take their place as the Blessed underground mortals; second in status but still with a modicum of honor. 

Next, Zeus takes things into his own hands, too many Olympian cooks in the kitchen has had disastrous results. So Zeus single handedly creates the next race of ‘articulate folk’  in what will become the Bronze Age. This time instead of noble metals Zeus creates men from ash trees and his creation is even more disastrous than their predecessors. The Bronze age men look like monsters. In correcting for the weak and infantile men of the Silver Age Zeus has created a generation of cunning warriors with excessive physical strength, unable to restrain their penchant for violence or channel their gratuitous strength and power to meaningful ends, they are destined for anonymous deaths in the halls of Hades. 

They didn’t eat any food at all.
They had this kind of hard, untamable spirit. 
Shapeless hulks. Terrifically strong. Grapple hook hands
Grew out of their shoulders on thick stumps of arms, 
And they had bronze weapons, bronze houses, 
And their tools were bronze. No black iron back then. 
Finally they killed each other off with their own hands
And went down into the bone-chilling halls of Hades. 
And left no names behind. Astounding as they were, 
Black Death took them anyway, and they left the 
sun’s light. 

Another failure, another attempt. This time, the Age of Heroes, Zeus directs the lustful gaze of his compatriot gods (and himself) to the world of men. This is the race of heroes and demigods, a humanity mixed with both divine and mortal blood. The first cities (Thebes and Troy) are created and these men die in epic battles for the sake of honor and justice. 

And some, crossing the water in ships. 
Died at Troy, for the sake of beautiful Helen. 
And when Death’s veil had covered them over
Zeus granted them a life apart from other men, 
Settling them at the ends of the Earth. 
And there they live, free from care. 
In the Isles of the Blest, by Ocean’s deep stream. 
Blessed heroes for whom the life-giving Earth 
Bears sweet fruit reining three times a year. 

The flaw of the Age of Heroes is that it requires perpetual tending. When the gods withdraw from intercourse with mankind, what is left is a barren world, devoid of hope, and it is here that Hesiod and his brother Perses find themselves: The Iron age, where for those without power or legitimacy it is a struggle to survive. 

Then the fifth generation: Broad-browed Zeus 
Made still another race of articulate folk
To people the plentiful earth. 
I wish I had nothing to do with this fifth generation, 
Wish I had died before or been born after, 
Because this is the Iron Age. 
Not a day goes by 
A man doesn’t have some kind of trouble. 
Nights too, just wearing him down. 
I mean the gods send us terrible pain and vexation. 

Ultimately this age too will be destroyed. Men will start being born aged, with grey hair around their temples. They will be incapable of kindness and compassion but will spend their time bickering and fighting.  They will take justice into their own hands, forgetting the gods, forgetting their place in the cosmos. Mankind will destroy each other, goaded by envy and injustice, and ultimately only Shame and Suffering will be left and there will be no defense against evil. 

As Works and Days opens, Hesiod and his brother Perses find themselves living in Askra “bad in winter, godawful in summer nice never,” [709] in the midst of a feud. Perses has stolen his brother’s inheritance and then after presumably spending it all like a ‘damn fool’ he’s back…asking for more money. What Hesiod decides to do instead is give his brother a thousand line essay on how to live a better life, attempting to teach him a skill set (justice and hard work) so that he will no longer find himself begging for his survival.

Perses is a foil for this generation's tendency towards folly. What begins as sloth and laziness and a little dishonesty will sew the seed of their destruction. Perses has chosen injustice over justice, he has chosen sloth and laziness over hard work and perseverance, the simple option of stealing his brother's inheritance rather than labor for his food. Life is hard, and humans must toil, that is their lot. To struggle against the gods would only be foolish. 

It’s what the hawk said high in the clouds
As he carried off a speckled-throated nightingale
Skewered on his talons. She complained something pitiful,
And he made this high and mighty speech to her: 

No sense in your crying. You’re in the grip of real strength now
And you’ll go where I take you, songbird or not.
I’ll make a meal of you if I want, or I might let you go. 

Only a fool struggles against his superiors. 
He not only gets beat, but humiliated as well. 

Thus spoke the hawk, the windlord, his long wings beating. 
[W&D 235-245]

Hesiod again tells the Prometheus story. In retribution for Prometheus giving fire back to humans, Zeus hides how to make a living from humans[60], forcing them to eke out their survival day in and day out. Part two of the curse was creating women, not as a helpmeet but as a ‘real pain for human beings.’[103] Hesiod will later caution his brother not to let a ‘sashaying female pull the wool over his eyes,’ they might look good on the outside but really they’re just fishing for your barn. “Trust a woman as you would a thief.”[419-421] As soon as this woman, Pandora, shows up, she immediately opens her jar and dumps petulance, misery, disease and famine all over the land. The only thing left clinging to the lip of the jar is hope. [117] 

The only way to survive, especially if you are poor, is to cultivate justice, yet only divine Justice can beat out Violence. Men have a propensity for injustice, where Lady Justice is dragged through the streets by corrupt judges, who swallow bribes and pervert their verdicts. Justice in the hands of humans tends toward corruption and chaos. Even after his soliloquy on the benefits of justice, to choose to live uprightly in a world of evil seems foolish. 

The eye of Zeus sees all and knows all, 
And if he wants, he’s looking here right now, 
And the kind of justice this city harbors 
Doesn’t fool him one bit. As for me, I’d as soon 
Not be a just man, not myself or my son. 
It’s no good at all for a man to be just
When the unjust man gets more than what’s just. 
But I don’t look for Zeus in his wisdom
To bring things to that pass for a long time. 

Rather than seek conquests and easy wealth, (like stealing his brother's inheritance), Hesiod urges his brother to return to a quiet life of farming; to quietly and with humility tend his crops; to work with his hands, or rather to work in any capacity so long as he does it diligently. Work is the antidote for hunger. The wealth of hard earned crops is the antidote for poverty which leads to crime and vice. 

Hunger is the lazy mans constant companion. 
Gods hate him, and men do too, the loafer 
Who lives like the stingless drones, wasting 
The hives honey without working themselves, 
Eating free. 
You’ve got to schedule your work 
So that your sheds will stay full of each season’s harvest.
It’s work that makes men rich in flocks and goods. 
When you work you're a lot dearer to the Gods
And to people too. Everybody hates a lie about. 

After his discussion on justice, we have come to the end of the homily portion of the poem. What follows is an agricultural treatise that is sometimes referred to as the 'Farmers Almanac' 1 The poem has moved from anthropology to didactic poetry with advice such as: 

“plant naked, plow naked, reap naked” 


Doing things right is the best thing in the world 
Just like doing ‘em wrong is the absolute worst. 

If you ever get the urge for hard seafaring 
When the Pleiades chased by gigantic Orion 
Fall into the misty sea, well forget it: 
All sorts of winds are whipping around then. 

It is here, that we begin to notice the mutability of Zeus. His mind is hard to predict, variable, changeable. Throughout the poem the other gods have slowly been relegated to the sidelines, and without the mediating role of Hekate [Theogony 415-450] Zeus alone controls the fate of mankind. "Little by little, the earlier guarantees and promises give way to growing uncertainty. And the gods, especially Zeus, contribute to it. Tellingly, in the later sections of the poem, Zeus, who had been previously said to grant prosperity [281, 379] is now named as the source of poverty. [637-38]"2 What began as a song of praise in the opening of the poem, now sounds a bit sinister.

Come sing Zeus’ praises, hymn your great Father
Through whom mortals are either
Renowned or unknown, famous or unnamed
As goes the will of great Zeus. 
Easy for Him to build up the strong
And tear the strong down. 
Easy for Him to diminish the mighty
And magnify the obscure.
Easy for Him to straighten the crooked
And wither the proud.

All throughout the Famers Almanac there are systems of order, the best days for planting and harvesting etc. But what if you do everything right? What if you remember to ‘never piss standing up while facing the sun’[806] or ‘never beget children after coming home from a burial’[815] and you always make sure to ‘never let boys of twelve sit on gravestones.’? Even if you do everything right, the gods owe you nothing. Humans have created order to ensure predictability, but the gods will never be caged in by predictions. It is man’s lot to get his work done as best he can and hope he doesn’t offend the gods.  

No matter what your situation, it is better to work. 

*All quotes from Works and Days are from: 
Lombardo, Stanley. Hesiod: Works and Days and Theogony. Cambridge, Hackett Publishing, 1993.

1. Strauss, Jenny. Hesiod's Cosmos. Cambridge, University Press, 2003.
2. Strauss, Jenny. Chapter 6: "Perspectives on Gods and Men"

Other Material: 
Hesiod- The Other Poet: Ancient Reception of Cultural Icon 
Introduction to Hesiod 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Hesiod - Theogony

There is a modern tendency to think of cosmogony as an attempt to substantiate foundational truth. In our modern brains we feel entitled to an origination story that is comprehensible and reductive. Carrying with us the pock marks of humanism, even at a subterranean level, we feel uncomfortable with the unknown. The humanist mantra is a rejection of dogma and superstition in exchange for critical thinking and rationalism; humans exist in the center of this world in an almost Copernican model. Nothing exists outside of our ability to comprehend.

At its heart cosmogony asks the question: How did we get here and what is our purpose? Beneath the narrative emerges an ordered system of belief that attempts to describe our creator and creation. Our modern approach to cosmogony looks similar to a lab with test tubes and beakers. Evidence is more important than narrative, and the “what" is frequently valued above the “why”.

Hesiod, writing between 750- 650 BC, very quickly locates himself geographically in the spectrum of knowledge. He is a mortal human, a shepherd, watching his flocks at the foot of Mount Helikon, and as such there are some things no mortal will ever truly understand. The Theogony doesn’t open with Hesiod, he’s not the protagonist; instead the narrative begins while the Muses are on Mount Helikon, where no human being can observe their sacred rites. 

And having bathed their silken skin in Permessos
Or in Horse Spring or the sacred creek Olmeios,
They begin their choral dance on Helikon’s summit
So lovely it pangs, and with power in their steps
Ascend veiled and misted in palpable air
Treading the night and in a voice beyond beauty
[5-10 trans: Stanley Lombardo]

Hesiod doesn’t go looking for the Muses, they come to him, while he his alone with his flock, and they don’t bring great tidings but rather they say: 

Hillbillies and bellies, poor excuses for shepherds: 
We know how to tell many believable lies
But also, when we want to, how to speak the plain truth.

Hesiod does not claim to be infallible or omnipotent. He is a poor excuse for a shepherd, how could he possibly presume to describe the secrets of the universe? The Muses hand him a staff of laurel, and breathe into him a divine voice that will allow him to speak poetry of the past and future, and so he begins. 

(Hilariously Lucian, writing five hundred years later, is underwhelmed by Hesiod’s future telling abilities. This is understandable because the Theogony seems to end suspiciously in the past, with no hint of the future in sight. In his “Word with Hesiod” he lodges his complaint with the bard in an imaginary discussion: 

Either the alleged promise of the Muses to disclose the future to you was never given, and you are--excuse the expression--a liar: or it was given, and fulfilled, but you, niggard, have quietly pocketed the information, and refuse to impart it to them that have need: or, thirdly, you have composed a number of prophetic works, but have not yet given them to the world; they are reserved for some more suitable occasion. I do not presume to suggest, as a fourth possibility, that the Muses have only fulfilled half of their promise, and revoked the other,—which, observe, is recorded first in your poem. Now, if you will not enlighten me on this subject, who can? As the Gods are 'givers of good,' so you, their friends and pupils, should impart your knowledge frankly, and set our doubts at rest.)

To recap: Hesiod, a mere mortal, is shepherding his flocks, when the Muses emerge from the invisibility of the night to teach him divine secrets, in which he may or may not be able to discern fact from fiction. Truth is the gods and they will do with it what they want.

After the Muses prep Hesiod, he begs them to start at the beginning, the reverse order of the Muses opening hymn to the deities [10-20] that starts with Zeus and works it’s way back to Gaia, Oceans and the black one, Night. Hesiod wants to begin with Chaos.

If modern origin stories are held to a scientific standard, Hesiod and his contemporaries  
were playing jazz. The poet Jared Carter compares the oral tradition of poetry to a New Orleans jazz performance, the poets riff and play off each other, there are chord changes and shared melodies that build off of tradition. There is a common theme, but the poet is given much autonomy and freedom. 1

We can see this in how Hesiod and Homer differ in their birth narrative of Aphrodite. In Hesiod’s version Aphrodite is the product of her father, Ouranos’ castration, while in Homer’s version Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus sans castration. A bit different. 

Hesiod’s version is so graphic and extreme it would be wrong not to go into it in minute detail: 

In the beginning there was only Chaos, the Abyss, 
But then Gaia, the Earth, came into being.

So far so good. But then Tartaros shows up, the dim underground world, and next Eros, who is allegedly the loveliest of all immortals. Eros ends up being a sidekick to Aphrodite, and doesn’t really have a prominent role to play in the Theogony outside of fomenting a general atmosphere of febrile desire. (If I had to distill the Theogony into one line it would be: A lot of nouns (person, place or thing) getting it on with other nouns in a frequently graphic and disturbing way.) 

Gaia gives birth to Oranos, the starry Heaven. “Just her size, a perfect fit on all sides.”[26] And then without any sexual love (Hesiod feels its important we know this) she gives birth to the barren raging sea. [31] And this is where things start to go down hill. You know that part about the Heavens being the perfect fit for the Earth? Well, Ouranos has his way with his mother every evening when the sun sets, he envelops her. Their union produces the Titans, and Kronos, the youngest Titan is disgusted by his lecherous father. 

As Gaia gives birth to the Cyclopes her progeny becomes more and more monstrous and terrifying. The hundred handed monsters are strong and hulking and Ouranos loathes them. So he decides to stuff them back into the hollow of the Earth as soon as they are born and keep them there forever. 

Jenny Clay puts it this way: “Genealogy now gives way to narrative as Hesiod relates how Uranus refused to allow his offspring to be born, “but kept all of them hidden and did not allow them to come up into the light” [157] apparently by blocking the birth canal through continuous sexual intercourse.” 2  Yikes? 

Gaia comes up with a plan. A cunning and evil trick. She will goad her children into destroying the offending ‘member’ of their dysfunctional family. 

Listen to me, children, and we might yet get even 
With your criminal father for what he has done to us. 
After all, he started this whole ugly business. 

Her children are shocked and horrified at what their mother is asking of them, all but Kronos. 

I think I might be able to bring it off, Mother.
I can’t stand Father; he doesn’t even deserve the name. 
And after all, he started this whole ugly business. 

And thus the moral doctrine of vengeance is born, and the defendant limps up to the stand, her belly swollen with hundreds of children battling each other to escape and she makes her case: 

“He started it!” 

So that evening, when Ouranos descends over the earth, Kronos is waiting for his father. In an ambush, clutching the sickle his mother created for him out of flint, he reaches up with his left hand and: 

The fiendishly long and jagged sickle, pruning the genitals 
Of his own father with one swoop and tossing them 
Behind him, where they fell to no small effect

Earth soaked up all the bloody drops that spurted out, 
And as the seasons went by she gave birth to the Furies 
And to the Giants gleaming in full armor, spears in hand,
And to the Melia, as ash-tree nymphs are generally called. 

The genitals themselves, freshly cut with flint, were thrown
Clear of the mainland into the restless, white capped sea,
Where they floated a long time. A white foam from the god-flesh
Collected around them, and in that foam a maiden developed…

Aphrodite is her name in speech human and divine, since it was in foam
She was nourished. 
[188-91, 195-197]

By comparison, in Book Twenty of the Iliad (20.107) ...Apollon tells Aeneas that his mother, Aphrodite, is the daughter of Zeus. 

So there is something else going on here. These aren’t narratives that aspire toward truth of any kind. The details aren’t important, instead what emerges is the chaos and violence as gods run around begetting each other, this trajectory is not sustainable. The monsters get more and more terrifying and the cycle of revenge has been established. 

Jenny Clay divides the Theogony into three major succession myths. The first is completed with the brutal narrative of Kronos castrating his father. Despite his methods, Ouranos was attempting to suppress the female generative force of Gaia which ultimately will lead to a radically destabilized cosmos. But Ouranos is instead suppressed and loses his ability to generate life in the process. After another two hundred lines of genealogies we come to Kronos who picks up the mantel from his father and begins the cycle again. Kronos and his sister Rheia produce the Olympians; Kronos is terrified that his offspring will “subdue” him, so he waits for each child to be born and then devours them. 

Rheia comes up with a plan to allow her youngest son to live. She will hide him away deep within the caverns of the earth and in his place swaddle a large stone. As one would expect, the plan works flawlessly, considering there is very little difference from a human baby and a rock. Eventually, after Zeus is strong and has finished appropriately flexing his glorious muscles, Gaia suggests to Kronos that he vomit up all his offspring (this part is a little hazy…) And the first thing Kronos vomits up is not a human baby after all…but a stone. 

Zeus took the stone and set it in the ground at Python (Delphi) 
Under Parnassoss’ hollows, a sign and wonder for men to come. 
And he freed his uncles, other sons of Ouranos
Who their father in a fit of idiocy had bound. 
They remembered his charity and in gratitude 
Gave him thunder and the flashing thunderbolt
And lightning, which enormous Earth had hidden before.
Trusting in these he rules mortals and immortals. 

Zeus has usurped his father, the second succession is accomplished with a military coup instead of castration, and now Zeus must battle and control the unruly gods. He punishes Atlas with infinite sky holding, Prometheus has a shaft driven through his middle and daily an eagle perches on the shaft and slowly eats his liver, only to have it grow back each night for a process of infinite liver consumption and regeneration. Moral of the story: Don’t mess with Zeus. But Prometheus is eventually saved from the eagle/liver ordeal and immediately schemes a way to give fire to mortals. Playing tricks on Zeus doesn’t go well, but this time it is not Prometheus who is punished, but the mortal men themselves. Their curse? Women. 

He made this lovely evil to balance the good,
Then led her off to the other gods and men 
Gorgeous in the finery of the owl-eyed daughter
Sired in power. And they were stunned,
Immortal gods and mortal men, when they saw 
The sheer deception, irresistible to men. 
From her is the race of female women, 
The deadly race and population of women
A great infestation among mortal men, 

Hesiod goes on in this misogynistic manner for another twenty lines, until he gets to his conclusion which is basically: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. If a man is fated to marry an abusive woman, there is no help for him, nothing can be done. He will live with pain in his heart, and mind and spirit suffering an incurable evil. Kind of intense. 

Finally we have arrived at the Titanomachy, the great ten year battle between Zeus and his Olympians, and the Titans. When Zeus finally wins, the gods persuade him to be their king, thus completing the last succession myth, god by election. 

His first act as King of the gods is to make Metis (translated: cunning intelligence) his wife. When Metis is about to deliver her first child, Athena, the ‘owl-eyed goddess,’ Zeus feels threatened, as his father and grandfather before him. His grandfather tried hiding his offspring in the womb of the earth with little success. Kronos had tried to swallow his children himself, burying them within his own ‘womb’ (It’s the end of the Bronze age…men have wombs too). Zeus decides he’ll try things a little differently and swallow both his wife and his future children all in one go, so he stuffs Metis into his stomach [895] and in doing so appropriates not only her cunning intelligence but also her female power of generation. Thirty-five lines later:

From his own head he gave birth to owl-eyed Athena,
The awesome, battle-rousing, army- leading, untiring Lady
whose pleasure is fighting and the metallic din of war.

Zeus and Memory, “with the beautiful hair”, together create the nine Muses and at this point the poem has gone full circle. Creation of the physical world has been completed, Gaia is subdued, Metis has been incorporated into Zeus and succession is no longer a threat. Zeus persuades the gods to focus their sexual interest on mortals and procreation between the gods and mortals begins and culminates in the race of heroes. The last phase of history has begun. 

As the poem ends, the genealogies of heroes emerge and begin to cement themselves into the histories of men. Hesiod has moved beyond the tradition of a local cult into a larger myth, creating a new story for a Panhellenic people. The most powerful families of Iron Age Greece will trace their families lineage to the gods and legitimize their divine authority to rule.

I mentioned above that the point of cosmogony is ultimately to answer the questions: How did we get here and what is our purpose? Throughout the Theogony a world is crafted that is very dark and erratic. It is a world comprised of binary oppositions; between Eros, who brings things together with desire, and Eris, who tears things apart with strife. Men take their place, not as captains of their destinies, but haunted by them. 

Hesiod thinks poetry can help. 

…Happy is the man
Whom the Muses love. Sweet flows the voice from his mouth.
For if anyone is grieved, if his heart is sore
With fresh sorrow, if he is troubled, and a singer
Who serves the Muses chants the deeds of past men 
Or the blessed gods who have their homes on Olympus, 
He soon forgets his heartache, and of all his cares
He remembers none: the goddesses’ gift turns them aside. 

The Theogony doesn’t really discuss the purpose or even genesis of mortal men, they sort of show up as a side note; a counterpoint to the divine and immortal. Hesiod makes a claim that Zeus establishes justice for the gods and men…but it’s a “might makes right” form of justice and men are caught between the wiles and whims of the erratic deities (as Homer makes very apparent throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey.) Man’s lot is to survive. And when survival looks bleak there is always poetry to comfort even an isolated shepherd. 

Hesiod - Theogony  translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914
Hesiod: Works and Days and Theogony Translated by Stanley Lombardo (I heard a rumor that this is the best translation and it was amazing. The best by a long shot.) 
Hesiod: The Other Poet - Hugo Koning 

All quotes from the text of the Theogony are from:  Lombardo, Stanley. Works and Days and Theogony. Hackett Publishing, 1993. 
1. Carter, Jared. “Hesiod: Poet and Peasant Overtures.” Chicago Review, Winter, 1990. 
2. Clay, Jenny Strauss. Hesiod’s Cosmos. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

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

The Satires of Persius

In high school my sister and I took a community college English class together. As somewhat sheltered homeschoolers this was the...