Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Enter the Greeks!, with two sympotic epigrams

A few days ago I emailed a proposal to OUP for a new translation of select epigrams from the Greek Anthology for the World's Classics, to complement my selection from Martial. I'm very excited about it and I hope they bite.

One big difference, if neither I nor they see sense, will be that some of the translations are into blank verse. This isn't something I had in mind before; versions just started popping into my head as I worked through the Loeb, making my selection.

Here are a couple from the first, 'sympotic' section of Book 11, my old doctoral stomping-ground. I have no idea if they're any good or not; I'm a complete novice at stuff like this.

AP 11.8

The myrrh, the garlands — don’t hang those on columns, 
don’t throw that on the pyre: your cash goes nowhere. 
For instance, send them my way: I’m still living. 
You can’t get ashes drunk; you’ll just get mud. 
And corpses aren’t big drinkers anyway.
  • anonymous poet, unknown date

AP 11.17

Stephanus used to beg and market-garden, 
but got his lucky break, and now he’s loaded. 
And right away he’s “Philostephanus” — 
“Stephanus” with four letters on the front. 
Next moment he’ll be “Hippocratippiades”, 
or push the boat out: “Dionysiopeganodorus”. 
But down the market, he’s still Stephanus.
  • Nicarchus, first century AD

Monday, 1 October 2018

Martial: Blood and Sand

If you're in Rome at all this month, can I recommend to you a date after dark at the Colosseum?

Sangue e Arena is a spectacular and thoughtfully designed multimedia show, playing three times a night on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays till the end of the month. Last performance is on Saturday 27th. It's son-et-lumière with all the modern ingenuities and a coherent script, taking full advantage of the space -- you will never see the Colosseum's interior in the same way again.

You book online in advance; when you turn up, go to the side of the amphitheatre opposite the usual tourist entrance (the signage won't tell you this, and the ticket office is laid-back in that Italian way). The stated running time is 30 minutes but by my reckoning you get a little more, plus the chance to linger afterward in the atmospherically lit heart of the Flavian Amphitheatre.

The videos on YouTube can't capture the experience of being there with all this amazing and beautiful stuff happening around you, but this one gives a bit of the flavour, and illustrates how the projected images mix re-enactment by modern actors with mosaics brought to life (and in the sea-battle, Greek vase images). It could be dreadful. It isn't.

And your narrator for your night at the Games is... Martial, reading selections from his Book of Shows! It's a tiny bit hokey, maybe, and the English translation doesn't always render everything that's in the Italian, but overall: wow.

It's a bit dear, but do go, if you can. And let me know what you think!

Thursday, 19 July 2018

A narrow escape: Martial 1.12

Destination: the frosty crags of Hercules’ own Tibur, where Albula seethes and fumes with sulphur-springs. The fourth milestone just out of town marks an estate: a sacred grove, the Muses’ favourite acres. Here, a ramshackle portico offers shade in summer’s heat... at least, it did. How near that bower dared outlandish crime! For it all at once fell in a heap — moments after Regulus in his two-horse car had driven under it. 

For sure, Fate feared our backlash; she knew she couldn’t take the bad PR. As it is, the loss is actually a win; the risk brings profit: if it still stood, it couldn’t have proved there were gods.
This one is for the amazing @miriam_bay, who is just now finishing up her brilliant PhD thesis on classical reception in the gardens of the world-famous Villa d’Este at Tivoli (ancient Tibur), has bathed in its sulphur-springs, and needed the first couple of lines. You should check out her own research blog at http://nasossong.wordpress.com/.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Epigrams for Empire (handout)

Epigrams for Empire

Mackail’s twelve ‘Chapters’

I.        Love
II.      Prayers and Dedications
III.    Epitaphs
IV.    Literature and Art
V.      Religion
VI.    Nature
VII.  The Family
VIII.            Beauty
IX.    Fate and Change
X.      The Human Comedy
XI.    Death
XII.  Life

Butcher: Greek as brain gym…and soul food

Greek ‘leisure’ is sometimes spoken of slightingly as if it were the luxury of the rich or the dilettanti… But in truth it is not the opposite of activity, but a special form of activity, the strenuous exercise of the intellectual or artistic faculties. It is no state of blissful indolence, which is the ideal of some Orientals… It is work, genuine work.

From Baring’s preface

The epigrams are, with a very few exceptions, selected from Mr. Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology. The classification and, in the great majority of cases, the title of each epigram are also borrowed from Mr. Mackail…

I beg any one who may do me the honour of glancing at this little volume to bear in mind that it is not the work of a scholar, or of even a very minor poet, but that of a Government official who, during the leisure moments of a somewhat busy life, has dabbled a little in Greek literature, and has occasionally amused himself by making verses — which is not always the same thing as writing poetry.

Some versions by Baring (from Mackail’s selection)

Love’s Drink

Ah, Cup of sweetness, lasting joy is thine,
My love’s own honeyed mouth has given thee bliss!
Would that she now would join her lips to mine,
And drain my very soul in one long kiss!

On a Slain Warrior

Timocritus lies here. Mars takes the brave,
And spares the coward for a nameless grave.

The Last Word

Thou talkest much, O man, but spare thy breath,
Keep silence here on earth, and think on Death.

From Wilde’s ‘L’Envoi’

Among the many young men in England who are seeking along with me to continue and to perfect the English renaissance — jeunes guerriers du drapeau romantique, as Gautier would have called us — there is none whose love of art is more flawless and fervent…than the young poet whose verses I have brought with me to America…

This recognition of the primary importance of the sensuous element in art, this love of art for art’s sake, is the point in which we of the younger school have made a departure from the teaching of Mr Ruskin — a departure definite and different and decisive… He would judge a picture by the amount of noble moral ideas it expresses…

From Rodd’s preface

These little flowers of song reveal, as does no other phase of that great [Greek] literature, a personal outlook on life, kindly, direct and simple, the tenderness which characterised family relations, the reciprocal affection of master and slave, sympathy with the domestic animals, a generous sense of the obligations of friendship, a gentle piety and a close intimacy with the nature gods.

Some versions by Rodd (from Mackail’s selection)

On the Spartans

These who with fame eternal their own dear land endowed
Took on them as a mantle the shade of death’s dark cloud;
Yet dying thus they died not, on whom is glory shed
By virtue which exalts them above all other dead.

Love and Death

Friend Cleobulus, when I die,
   Who conquered by desire,
Abandoned in the ashes lie
   Of youth’s consuming fire,
Do me this service, drench in wine
   The urn you pass beneath,
And grave upon it this one line,
   ‘The gift of Love to Death.’

The End of the Comedy

Fortune and Hope, a long adieu!
   My ship is safe in port.
With me is nothing left to do,
   Make other lives your sport.

Gideon Nisbet 07/03/18

Epigrams for Empire (conference paper)

The following is a short conference paper I delivered the other day at a smashing student-organised conference here at Birmingham, 'Decolonising the Academy'. There's a think-piece about the issues here, by one of our joint-honours students with Anthropology, and the conference followed on from a November round-table event. The aim is actual curriculum change.

It was a great pleasure and a privilege to contribute to this excellent event!

The paper only mentions our friend Martial in passing, but I hope you'll find it interesting as an instance of the sort of work I often do with ancient epigram. In the unlikely event you find yourself thinking, 'If only there was a book about this stuff!', I've written one... 😀

A short conference paper but, I'm afraid, long for a blog post. I'll bung the handout up separately.

Epigrams for Empire

Thank you, Nina, and thank you all for giving me your time. There is a handout circulating; it is thin on details, but if you’d like any bibliographic pointers when we’re done, please just get in touch.

My topic today is ancient epigram, and the uses to which it has been put in the not-so-ancient past. I should begin by explaining what ‘epigram’ is. Ancient epigrams are little poems, of which you’ll see examples dotted on your handout. There were a few Latin epigrammatists, notably Martial, but the genre began Greek and mostly stayed that way. Our main source is the so-called Greek Anthology, or Anthologia Palatina, ‘AP’ for short: it was put together in the tenth century, its content is recycled from previous anthologies, and it contains upward of four thousand epigrams. In the original, these little poems are typically of two, four, six, or eight lines. Those numbers are even because the typical metre of epigram is the elegiac couplet, the Greek and Latin metre of sex and death.

The word ‘epigram’ literally means “written or incised upon”, and epigram began as inscriptions: Greeks liked carving labels onto statues and tombs and such, and a minority of those labels had always been in verse. Indeed, most surviving Greek literature is verse, not because they were all terribly poetic and sensitive, but because verse was easier to remember, and had carried cultural memory through the long, post-Mycenaean Dark Age during which literacy had been forgotten.

Inscriptional epigram became literary epigram in the Hellenistic Age, the centuries after the death of Alexander, when the sanctuary sites of the old Greek heartland — Delphi, Olympia, and such — became a focus of antiquarian interest for the scholar-poets of the Library of Alexandria. The new wave of poetry nerds, most famously Callimachus, collected inscriptional epigrams as a form of cultural capital, but also used them as models for their own compositions, which they often tried out at the symposium, the traditional drinking-party at which Greek masculinity was affirmed.

Thus, and returning to our characterisation of elegy as ‘sex and death’, we get lots of death because one of the most important uses of inscriptions was on tombs, to perpetuate the memory of the deceased to his or her polis and to passing wayfarers. But we also get lots of sex, because the symposium was all about male-bonding and letting ones guard down: in vino veritas, as the Romans would later say, but the Greeks said it first, in Greek.

Through the symposium, and subsequent collection into authored books — arranged by category or type of poem — literary epigram’s range expanded. A recently discovered papyrus roll by the Hellenistic poet Posidippus, for interest, has whole sections of poems devoted to topics as diverse as engraved gems, Ptolemaic ruler-cult, miraculous cures, and birds predicting the future. But even as it diversified, epigram kept making inscriptional gestures, and never forgot about death or sex.

That made it useful to one early proponent of what we would now call a gay identity — indeed, he was the first known person to use the word ‘homosexual’ in English, though he disapproved of its etymology. He was John Addington Symonds, famous now as the author of, in particular, two subcultural treatises that were the first sensible treatments of homosexuality in English print. In Symonds’s own lifetime they circulated in tiny numbers, among carefully vetted acquaintances; the public at large knew him instead for his work on the Italian Renaissance, and on Greek literature. His bestseller of 1873, Studies of the Greek Poets, introduced large numbers of people to Greek epigram — including numerous poems about gay desire, which he placed alongside, and implicitly ranked at least equal to, the presumptively heterosexual norm. All human life was here, said Symonds — the Greek Anthology proved that love was love.

This was a big problem because the Victorians were obsessed with ancient Greece; in fact, they’d collectively convinced themselves that they more or less were the ancient Greeks, with a serving of dutiful and religious Hebraism on the side. In the eighteenth century the British elite had happily thought of themselves as Romans like Cicero, but then the French had ruined it by throwing a Revolution and ushering in a Roman-style Republic for real; one that swiftly turned into an Empire, with all the Roman trappings. Besides, everyone knew Rome eventually Declined and Fell; being able to run provinces was all very well, but it obviously hadn’t been enough.

So, we picked Greece, which was earlier, and therefore purer, as our new, ancient role-model: a mythical land of, as Matthew Arnold put it, “Sweetness and Light”. This romantic racial self-identification with a canonical, classical, and semi-imaginary past had unexpected potential for what we would now call dissident self-fashioning. If you could rewrite the ancient past, you might redefine national identity in the present, opening up new possibilities for living in the here and now.

It became an even bigger problem because Symonds was such a hit. Studies of the Greek Poets went through three editions and was in print for over fifty years; and all through those fifty years, critics and translators were trying to squeeze gay Greek epigram back into the closet. I explore this story in my last big book, Greek Epigram in Reception, which you can get through findit@bham if you’re interested.

The most important scholar and translator of the backlash was James Mackail, an influential classicist and public intellectual, much in demand as a  speaker here and overseas. Mackail saved Greek epigram by destroying it — he threw away the traditional structure of the Greek Anthology, and almost all its content, keeping only a hundred poems (not all of them actually from the Anthology) and rearranging them into twelve new categories of his own choosing. His pious list is on your handout. Like Symonds, he tells us that Greek epigram documents the whole range of human experience, then and now — but unlike Symonds, and by throwing almost all of it away, Mackail presents a human story predicated on religion, love of family, and love of nature, with a healthy dollop of memento mori.

This tacitly Christianised and censored story was hugely popular with readers. Mackail’s two little volumes, one of the Greek text, the other its translation  were affordable, and, as you can see [hold up example], were built to travel. These little books went everywhere, including the far-flung territories of the British Empire… an Empire in which Mackail, though by his own reckoning a political progressive, was a firm believer. His epigram project was patriotic, consciously so. Indeed, one reason he preached the gospel of classical studies to the public was his conviction that learning Greek and Latin, and reading the ancient authors, was vital to keeping the colonies “culturally white” — and that’s not my extrapolation, it’s his actual words to an audience in Australia.

Britain’s empire was run by classicists, mostly out of Oxford and Cambridge. The entrance exams for the imperial civil service presupposed a classical education — a straightforward way of reserving the jobs for ‘our’ sort of chap, and for stopping, say, India being run by, say, Indians. Indeed, the candidates knew their classics back to front, and practically nothing else: the curriculum at the ‘best’ schools, that dominated entrance to Oxford and and Cambridge and thus to the civil service track, consisted of Classics… and games.

And how had these classicists learned their Latin and Greek? They had begun with epigram, oddly enough. It made a kind of sense: epigrams are short; they often have a point, or punchline. They are suited to the attention span of even the dullest pupil. Latin beginners read selections from Martial— the shortest poems first. They graduated to verse composition and translation, going from English into Latin in the style of Martial — or of the Martial they were encountering, in these carefully censored school selections. (The ‘real’ Martial is one of the filthiest poets who ever lived.)

Once they’d learned their Latin, the more capable boys went on to learn Greek the same way, with selections from the Anthology. Greek was always the treat, the cherry on top, the mark of the superior intellect and the refined soul. The best boys won prizes for composing Latin and Greek epigrams on a supplied theme; first at school, then at university — at Oxford you can still win a medal for this. (Enoch Powell won one.) And when I say the best boys, I mean the best boys, at least as the nineteenth century reckoned them, because grappling with the intricacies of the Greek language was held to be the best conditioning for a fully realised and omni-capable life: see  the excerpt from Samuel Butcher’s Some Aspects of the Greek Genius, on your handout. You will observe that Butcher’s take on Greek leisure is Orientalising in its reflexes, and his understanding of the Anthology in particular is completely dependent on Mackail. Many of these high-flying schoolboys followed Professor Butcher’s prescription and carried the epigrammatic habit into adulthood, honing their faculties by dashing off epigrams in, or from, the Greek in moments of downtime — and for these, Mackail’s little Greek Anthology was a godsend. You could take it anywhere — and this brings us to the first of two translators from the Anthology who are at the heart of my paper today.

He is Evelyn Baring, First Earl of Cromer, who published his selection in 1903. You will find much of his Preface on your handout, and I have a copy of the book here with me for anyone who’d like a look later. Baring was a bit of an exception — he was a former soldier turned bureaucrat, who’d come to Greek late in life — but his dependence on Mackail is typical. Indeed, the the seasoned administrator and the lauded man of letters had established a mutual admiration society — Mackail elsewhere praises Baring as “one in whom the Greek lucidity of intelligence is combined with the Roman faculty of constructive administration”.

The Victorian public loved their glimpses into the private world of the great and good; their snippets of the wit and wisdom of men of state. Baring bids for our goodwill through conventional self-deprecation:

‘I beg any one who may do me the honour of glancing at this little volume to bear in mind that it is not the work of a scholar, or of even a very minor poet, but that of a Government official who, during the leisure moments of a somewhat busy life, has dabbled…’

But he makes sure to sign off with his recently acquired noble title, ‘Cromer’ – a big step up for a former artillery lieutenant from a family of bankers. What had been keeping Cromer ‘somewhat busy’? Some of you may already know: he’d been running Egypt. I don’t know this history well and it’s not my place to tell it: all I’ll say is that Egypt in the late 19th century was notionally self-governing, but that its government did what Britain told it to. Evelyn Baring was was the man doing the telling, with an army at his back, to guarantee Suez as the highway to India. This system had a name: the ‘Veiled Protectorate’. Evelyn Baring had invented it. To the Empire and the world, he practically was Egypt. Like Mackail, he saw himself as a forward-looking moderniser, and Egypt suffered under his modernising conviction that the market would solve everything… because that had worked so well in Ireland.

In 1903, when Baring published his translation, he was still in office; he was eased out in 1907, and was later made President of the Classical Association of England and Wales. His Presidential address of 1910 was on how classical studies were the best preparation for running Britain’s dominions in the East.

Baring was a plague, but in leisure moments between starving people to death, he was emulating his better-educated peers by tinkering up versions out of Mackail’s patriotic and purified Greek Anthology. You will see a few on the handout. Channeling the sublime Greeks proved Baring had soul; and so, what he did in his day job had to be for the best.

I move on now to my second translator from the Anthology, whose story is tied to Baring’s. I think it illustrates how epigram enabled historic elite white privilege — including the privilege to backtrack and start over without repercussion. He is Rennell Rodd, who ended up Sir Rennell Rodd despite a culturally transgressive start. As a young man at Oxford, Rodd had been a devoted friend and follower of Oscar Wilde, and dedicated to him a privately printed poetry book, Songs in the South — alluding not to the Southern United States, but to the Mediterranean, which was already a byword for homosexual opportunity among the cognoscenti.

The very next year, though, Wilde repaid his young friend’s devotion with embarrassment. During his American tour of 1882, he took it upon himself to arrange an American republication of Rodd’s book under a peculiar new title, Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf — a very public republication, in a Beardsley-esque cover designed to Wilde’s specification, and prefaced with an essay by Wilde himself. This is the infamous ‘L’Envoi’, which will be familiar to any Wildeanists among you, and it is an in-your-face statement of how his own Aesthetic creed makes morality irrelevant in art.

No-one is sure now if Rodd was (in our terms) gay, or bi, or questioning, or just had a big old man-crush, but Wilde had just outed him to the world as… whatever. Those poems had been meant for close friends and family – well, probably not family. He was humiliated. He was beside himself. A notice in the New York Tribune of 25th November that year reports:

“Mr Rennell Rodd… has renounced his faith. He now disdains any connection with the aesthetic school, and lets it be known that he had nothing to do with the amazing dress in which his verses occurred. He intends to publish a new volume.”

That new volume was a long time coming. The very next year (1883) Rodd entered the diplomatic service. After proving his reliability in a series of minor embassy postings he was promoted to, guess where?, Egypt, where he served for eight years under — who else? — Evelyn Baring (1894-1902). His performance in Egypt settled all debts, and made his career: from 1897 he was Sir Rennell Rodd, and he ended his days as a Baron. I suspect it was through Baring that he came to count Mackail as a personal friend. By the time he compiled his own little epigram-book he was enjoying a long stint (1908-19) as Britain’s ambassador to Italy, and he is buried in the English Cemetery in Rome. His volume of translations wears its ideology on its sleeve, and it is an ideology straight out of Mackail: the title is Love, Worship and Death.

Oscar Wilde’s ancient Greece had been the spiritual home of the Love which, in his own time, Dared not speak its name — as he famously declared in verse and defended in court, incidentally ruining Greece as a private code for elite male homosexual subculture. Rodd constructs his own ancient Greece as a rebuttal of everything Wilde had stood for — of the Greek love that had led to Wilde’s imprisonment and disgrace. (Wilde, by the way, was a huge fan of John Addington Symonds and developed his ideas about ancient Greek literature and love in dialogue with Symonds’s work.) Accordingly, Rodd’s versions of erotic epigram take pains to remove any hint of homosexual desire, even when the original is explicit; and I would like to imagine that his more classically educated readers, of whom there will still have been many, will have enjoyed reading a little biography into this literary straightening-out. In the version titled ‘Love and Death’, for instance, out of the bisexual Syrian Greek poet Meleager, “youth’s consuming fire” used to be the fire of boys.

Rodd’s preface, excerpted on your handout, insists that through the Anthology we discover a Greek spirit of piety, love of family and nature —all the Mackail story beats, including the Simonidean appeal to patriotic sacrifice (a motif that would soon find itself worked to exhaustion in commemorative poetry for the dead of the First World War). But Rodd also hears in Greek epigram the mutual benefits of Empire — of willingly accepting ones place in a conservative hierarchy, whether high or low (“the reciprocal affection of master and slave”). Certainly that worked out well for Rodd, which is something I like to read into his choice of closing poem, titled ‘The End of the Comedy’. Through imperial service, and by re-parsing himself through epigram in that service, Rodd had indeed come safe to port. Youthful dalliance with Meleager had landed him in hot water, but rewriting Meleager was the capstone of his rehabilitation as a pillar of the Establishment.

Rodd and Baring were probably ‘dabbling’ in epigram in adjoining offices in Egypt. Did one inspire the other? Rodd was the real classical scholar; then again, Baring was first to print by more than a decade. In any case, there’s no need to see it as anything but a shared habit, and a habit shared by far more than these two men. “Greek leisure” was engrained in the soul of Empire, and justified Empire as work for the soulful. As classicists are now realising, it cast a glamour over brutal realities. Thank you for your time.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

I'm taking requests...

If you've a personal favourite poem of Martial's you'd like to see me translate, please say so in the comments below - I could do with stretching my creative muscles.

(And yes, I've a big pile of paperwork to finish. Why do you ask?)

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Lorna Rainey guest post 2: northern Rome

The remaining five sites on this tour take place in the northern part of Rome, meaning that there is a natural stopping point in the tour, as the first part contains a large number of sites, some of which, like the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, may take several hours to fully explore. As such, this tour may take two days to fully complete. Assuming that this logical break has been used to divide the tour into two parts, this section of the tour will start from Roma Termini.

The Quirinal is one of the seven hills of Rome. In order to get to it you must head left from Roma Termini, along Via Cavour, turning right onto the Via Panisperna and then right again onto Via Milano: this road will turn into Traforo Umberto 1, which leads you over the hill. The next stop is the Shrine of the Capitoline Triad, called “ancient Jove” by Martial (5.22). This is located somewhere on the Quirinal Hill: the exact location is unknown, although it would have most likely been somewhere near the Ministero della Guerra, which is on Via delle Quattro Fontane. Once you have crossed the Quirinal Hill, take a right onto Via Rasella, which leads onto the Via delle Quattro Fontane. After that visit the Mausoleum of Augustus (5.64): in order to reach this you must walk along the Via del Tritone, then take a right onto the Corso, one of the main shopping streets in Rome. Come off the Corso, onto Via Tomacelli, then walk along Via di Ripetta, which will lead you past the Mausoleum. You cannot go inside of the Mausoleum, although it has been announced that it will be restored and opened to visitors some time in 2019.

The penultimate stop on the tour is “the Covered Way” (3.5): its exact location is unknown, although scholars believe it to have been located between the Tiber and the Mausoleum of Augustus. There are two roads which may take a similar route to that of the Covered Way: Via di Ripetta, and Lungotevere in Augusta. Finally visit “the Flaminian Way” (11.13): in order to reach this you must walk along the Via di Ripetta, until you reach Piazza del Popolo. Exit the Piazza on the Via Flaminia: if you follow this road, it will lead you over the Tiber on the Ponte Flaminio and out of Rome.