Monday, 21 September 2020

On Virgil's Death Anniversary, Was the AENEID complete?


On the anniversary of Virgil’s death in 19 BCE, the poet who (like so many from antiquity) dazzles me with his artistry while making me feel politically squeamish, I’ve returned to the old chestnut: how nearly complete was the Aeneid?  The tradition that Virgil had not completed it and was not happy with it being published unrevised goes back to a biography written in the fourth century CE by a grammarian called Aelius Donatus. This biography may contain earlier material (but not therefore necessarily more reliable) written by Suetonius. It certainly includes bits of text added by other scholars subsequent to Donatus.

The main evidence that the poem was unfinished consists of the 57 incomplete lines spread across all 12 books but particularly concentrated in books 2-5, 7 and 9-10.

Donatus says that Virgil went to Greece, planning a three-year stay to finish the epic. He asked his friend Varius to burn the Aeneid if anything happened to him. He fell ill in Greece, returned to the Italian port city of Brindisi, and died there, having tried and failed to have the manuscripts burned. Varius published them anyway ‘acting under the authority of Augustus. But they were revised only in a cursory fashion, so that if there were any unfinished lines, he left them unfinished’.

There have been several responses to this information. People who think Virgil was quietly subversive towards Augustus and the Roman Empire suppose that he had fallen out of love with the propagandist aspects of the poem and so considered destroying it. This premise informed the famous 1945 novel The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch, which explores the difficulties faced by an artist under totalitarianism.

Others have said that Virgil knew he wanted to adjust or supplement the ideological import of the poem to make it either more anti- or pro-Augustus.  Sometimes they cite a passage interpolated into Donatus’ account, which says that ‘if he had lived longer, Virgil would have written 24 books, up to the time of Augustus, and that he meant…to deal with the deeds of Augustus in detail’.

But I am not alone in thinking that at least some of the ‘unfinished’ lines were actually finished. The truncation of the metrical flow often adds pathos or rhetorical emphasis.

When the Trojans take the momentous decision to drag the wooden horse into the city, the moment just before Aeneas says ‘we parted the walls and laid bare the city’s battlements’ is preceded by the ominous pause created by a missing half-line (2.233).

When Aeneas brutally tells Dido to stop harassing him with her complaints, ‘for I’m not trying to get to Italy of my own volition’, the impact his emotional brutality has on Dido is arguably increased, again, by the thudding silence of the missing metrical feet (4.361).

In the final book, when Turnus, who has lost some of his dearest friends in battle, is upbraided by his disguised sister for not attacking hard enough, a pause precedes the tragic soliloquy in which he accepts that his violent death is now imminent and inevitable (12.630). It is as if he is drawing a very deep breath.

One thing is for certain, if the human race survives what it is currently doing to the planet, and unless a wholly unexpected and reliable new source turns up for what went on in Brindisi just before and on 21st September 19 BCE, we will be arguing about Virgil’s aesthetic and political intentions in the Aeneid for a good few millennia to come.

The Tomb of Virgil' by Joseph Wright of Derby

Friday, 11 September 2020

Diana Rigg's Greeks and Romans: An Appreciation

Diana Rigg of Doncaster, whose first name (Enid) she wisely decided against using, died yesterday. She was a hugely popular figure both in the theatre world and amongst the public. Her mesmerising 1992-1994 performance as Euripides’ Medea, directed by Jonathan Kent, transferred to Broadway, where she received the Tony Award for best actress. Her thoroughly cerebral Medea changed my interpretation of several of the scenes in this deathless tragedy. She was extraordinarily intelligent and approached genius in her feeling for verse forms.

As my own tribute, I’ve collected some pictures from most of her other Greek or Roman roles, broadly defined. Her Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra at the 1985 Chichester Festival was said to be a masterclass in the precision delivery of iambic pentameters. She had learned her craft cavorting wittily in the woods as Helena during the pre-nuptial theatricals of Theseus and Hippolyta in Peter Hall’s Beatnik film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1968 (alongside Judy Dench and Helen Mirren, no less).

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In 1975 she won high praise for her scintillating whiplash delivery of Tony Harrison’s demotic rhyming couplets in his Phaedra Britannica, which relocated Racine’s Phèdre to India in the run-up to the 1857 revolt. It was only a matter of time before she played Racine’s own Phèdre at the Albery Theatre in 1998, although I preferred her creepy, mordant Agrippina in the accompanying production of Racine’s Britannicus.

But I will always cherish most my memories of her astoundingly glamorous Clytemnestra In the notorious 3-part Oresteia, under the new title The Serpent Son, which the BBC broadcast in 1979. Having brought a vast new audience to Greek tragedy because they had loved her so much in television shows, especially The Avengers, she acted everyone else off the screen. This is saying something when Helen Mirren played Kassandra and Sian Phillips is the Head Fury.

I had just arrived at university and loved the show—she managed to find some humour even in the terrifying Clytemnestra—but it was deplored by all my Classics tutors, who nevertheless watched every minute, as slightly steamy conversations with them accidentally revealed. I think she would have relished this information. So sad to see her go.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Jacques-Louis David & the Human Tragedy of the Iliad


Jacques-Louis David must long ago have won the distinction of having his paintings on the cover of more Classics books than any other artist: think ‘The Death of Socrates’ (1787), ‘The Intervention of the Sabine Women’ (1799) and ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’ (completed 1814) alone.

But my favourite is his early 'Funeral of Patroclus' (1778), because it shows what he included, and what he omitted, from the source text in the Iliad book 23 (part of the text is translated below). The painting went missing until 1972, when the National Gallery of Ireland acquired it; everyone was surprised how much David’s concept had changed between the final painting and his preparatory sketch in the Louvre that had never disappeared.


David’s changes focussed the viewer’s attention far more intensely on the human emotional drama—the three spot-lit male cadavers and the faces of the captive women, especially Briseis who will deliver her own lament for Patroclus shortly. He left out all the dead bodies of animals which Homer has Achilles pile on the pyre, but by the time he finalised the painting he had taken the more momentous step of eliminating the gods.

In the sketch he had followed Homer in portraying gods intervening to protect Hector’s corpse, which Achilles had wanted to be devoured by dogs: Aphrodite hovers above the corpse, anointing it, and the chariot of Apollo arrives from the left, drawing a dark cloud to shield the dead flesh from the sun. 

David may have been attracted to the theme by the subject set for the Prix de Rome back in 1769, ‘Achilles, after dragging Hector’s corpse, places it at the foot of the bier where Patroclus’ corpse is lying’. But he did not complete the painting until nine years later, apparently wrestling with its complexity.

The funeral of Patroclus brings out the very worst in Achilles, who breaks every rule of ‘civilised’ warfare in sacrificing those poor Trojan men on Patroclus’ pyre. The Homeric narrator hardly ever passes moral judgement on actions in the poem, but here he makes an exception: Achilles ‘conceived an evil plan in his mind.’ ‘Great-souled’ Achilles, David says with great clarity, has far more victims than persecutors.



Patroclus' loved ones ‘heaped up the wood and made a pyre a hundred feet in both directions, and they put the corpse on the top of the pyre, broken-hearted. In front of the pyre they skinned and dressed many fine sheep and horned cattle of rolling gait. Great-hearted Achilles took the fat from all of them and covered the corpse with it from head to toe, and piled up the flayed bodies around it. And he leaned two-handled jars of honey and oil against the bier.  Swiftly, groaning intensely, he threw on the pyre four horses with arching necks. Patroclus had nine dogs that ate beneath his table, and Achilles cut the throats of two to place on the pyre. And he slaughtered with the bronze twelve valiant sons of the great-hearted Trojans, conceiving an evil plan in his mind. And then he set the pyre alight with the iron might of fire.

κηδεμόνες δὲ παρ᾽ αὖθι μένον καὶ νήεον ὕλην,
ποίησαν δὲ πυρὴν ἑκατόμπεδον ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα,
165ἐν δὲ πυρῇ ὑπάτῃ νεκρὸν θέσαν ἀχνύμενοι κῆρ.
πολλὰ δὲ ἴφια μῆλα καὶ εἰλίποδας ἕλικας βοῦς
πρόσθε πυρῆς ἔδερόν τε καὶ ἄμφεπονἐκ δ᾽ ἄρα πάντων
δημὸν ἑλὼν ἐκάλυψε νέκυν μεγάθυμος Ἀχιλλεὺς
ἐς πόδας ἐκ κεφαλῆςπερὶ δὲ δρατὰ σώματα νήει.
170ἐν δ᾽ ἐτίθει μέλιτος καὶ ἀλείφατος ἀμφιφορῆας
πρὸς λέχεα κλίνωνπίσυρας δ᾽ ἐριαύχενας ἵππους
ἐσσυμένως ἐνέβαλλε πυρῇ μεγάλα στεναχίζων.
ἐννέα τῷ γε ἄνακτι τραπεζῆες κύνες ἦσαν,
καὶ μὲν τῶν ἐνέβαλλε πυρῇ δύο δειροτομήσας,
175δώδεκα δὲ Τρώων μεγαθύμων υἱέας ἐσθλοὺς
χαλκῷ δηϊόωνκακὰ δὲ φρεσὶ μήδετο ἔργα:
ἐν δὲ πυρὸς μένος ἧκε σιδήρεον ὄφρα νέμοιτο.

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Nine-Year-Old Girl Finds Roman Treasure in 1735


I was going to write a blog supporting public pressure for our glorious leaders to rethink their catastrophic policy re A-Level results. Even after the U-turn, I remain enraged that the psychological health of our most precious youngsters transitioning to adulthood has been jeopardised by a five-day ordeal. But something wonderful happened this morning and if you have a few minutes to spare, you might be cheered up by what made me so happy.


Nearly every day I come across someone who should have been discussed in A People’s History of Classics, which I published with Henry Stead earlier this year. But there are not many small children in it and I am devastated that nine-year-old Isabel Cutler, a working-class Geordie whom I discovered this morning, will have to wait for the second edition.


We devote several pages in ch. 7 to all the farm-workers, navvies, gardeners, miners and grave-diggers who discovered most of the Roman-era antiquities in British and Irish collections. But this little girl managed to escape our notice, despite finding one of the most important Romano-British objects in existence while playing on the banks of the Tyne.


The ‘Corbridge Lanx’, a tray for distributing food and drinks at banquets, is a stunning example of late-Roman decorated silver plate, made in Asia Minor or North Africa in the 4th century CE. Apollo stands at the entrance to his shrine on Delos, with Athena, Artemis his sister and his mother Leto seated. Athena is also beautifully depicted; the other female may be Leto’s sister Ortygia. The detail stands out even better in the 1736 engraving.


A local court record for May 1735 states that  “Isabel Cutter, daughter of Thomas Cutter of Corbridge, blacksmith, aged nine years… did on or about the tenth day of February last past find an ancient silver piece of plate in a great measure covered with the earth, one end sticking out of the ground, at a certain place within this manor near the north bank of the river Tyne by the water edge.”

Lucky Isabel! Finding treasure is every child’s fantasy. I wonder what she made of those gorgeous pagan goddesses—children of her age usually love Greek myths. And I hope her blacksmith father was nice to her—he sold it to the local goldsmith, making more than £30 for it (now worth about £8,000, which may have felt like a lot of money, but I suspect he was ripped off). The loaded Duke of Northumberland subsequently acquired it and his descendant bestowed it on the British Museum in 1993. If anyone can tell me more about Isabel Cotter—incorrectly said on Wikipedia to be a cobbler’s child—I would be eternally grateful.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

On Capital Punishment and Psychological Degradation

It is a grim anniversary. A year ago today the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced the addendum to the Execution Protocol which made it possible to resume capital punishment after a 2-decade pause. Eleven days ago, the new era was inaugurated when convicted murderer Daniel Lewis Lee received a lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute. 

Chinonye Chukwu
Two more federal executions have since taken place and more are imminent. They include that of Lezmond Mitchell, even though the Navajo Nation of which he is a member opposes the death penalty, as do the families of his victims.  He has lost an appeal citing evidence of jurors’ racial animus.

Last night I watched Clemency, a film about a prison governor who oversees executions in an unspecified American penitentiary. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, it centres on a prison governor, who routinely oversees executions, during the days in which she tries to prepare herself, her staff, and Anthony Woods, convicted of shooting a police officer, for his execution. The acting of Alfre Woodard as the governor and Aldis Hodge as the doomed man is hair-raising, especially in the scene where she clinically describes execution procedures to him and he reacts in a frenzy of self-harm. Astonishingly, this encounter was filmed in just two takes.

The case of Woods is inspired by that of Troy Davis, executed in 2011 for the murder of a police officer, a crime which he always denied. Yet the film refuses to take the viewer far down the two paths that we are led to expect by the casting of African American leads, and the doubt subtly thrown on the question of Woods’ guilt.

This is not a film about the disgraceful disproportion of ethnic minorities incarcerated in the USA. It is not even a film about the worn-out philosophical arguments pro and contra capital punishment endlessly recycled by debating societies at Liberal Arts Colleges.
Aldis Hodge scintillating as Anthony Woods. 

No, it is a surgical analysis of the moral, emotional and psychological degradation of every single individual involved in putting a human being to untimely death. From the medic who panics when he can’t access a Hispanic convict’s vein, to the journalists supposedly witnessing executions who can’t lift their eyes from their notebooks, to the governor’s husband, emotionally neglected by his burnt-out wife, nobody escapes the dismal drip-feed of dread, depression, and despair.

Chukwu includes a scene in which the governor’s husband, a teacher, reads to his class from Ralph Ellison’s Odyssey-inspired Invisible Man (1952): “I am an invisible man.  I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” This applies not only to the men executed in the film, but to the whole community. A society which requires any of its members to participate in these disgusting rituals brutalises all of them.

This blog has been painful to write because I find it difficult to admit that I once wondered if there weren’t individual cases where the death penalty might be appropriate. After I became a mother I watched a documentary in which a man who had killed a small girl boasted to the British police that he would be able for the rest of his life to get sexual pleasure from the memories of the crime. Why, I thought for some months, should any parent be forced to live with the knowledge that such fantasies were continuing to be enacted in the perpetrator’s imagination? Better, I temporarily believed, to erase that vile consciousness altogether.

But once the perinatal hormones had subsided, I was able to remember that no valid refutation exists of the argument against capital punishment that it is always unjust because irreversible and there are a thousand unexpected ways in which a question mark can arise over the security of the conviction. Clemency shows, just as importantly, that it is also always unjust because it makes inhuman demands on the personnel employed by the Department with, in the USA, the Orwellian title ‘Of Corrections’. Watch it and weep.