Saturday, 31 October 2009

Another letter to Ausonius (Symmachus Ep. 1.14)

This one certainly has been translated before, many times (I haven't compared this version to any others except Callu's Budé). It is usually found with editions of Ausonius' Mosella, a delicious irony given that Symmachus' letter complains of the fact that Ausonius did not send him a copy of the poem. The conceit count is through the roof, and there are doubtless some that I have missed. The date is the early 370s, as there are references to Symmachus' stay at court in Trier at the end of 360s, but the western emperors are still Valentinian (d. 375) and Gratian. The version of the Mosel here described is therefore prior to the one that now survives, which refers obliquely to Ausonius' consulship of 379. The circles in Rome to whom it was sent may have been linked to the Prefect of Illyricum, Italy, and Africa, Sex. Claudius Petronius Probus, who has plausibly identified as the holder of high office praised in the latter stages of the poem.

You ask me for a longer letter. That is a sign of true affection for me. But since I am aware of the poverty of my intellect, I prefer striving for Laconic brevity to laying open, over manifold pages, the meagreness of my immaturity. And no surprise if the vein of my eloquence is diminished, since you have not helped by letting me read any poem of yours, nor any volumes in prose. Why do you request such a sizeable loan of my conversation, when you have trusted me with nothing of your own literary credit. 2. Your Mosella is flying through many people’s hands and laps, immortalised in divine verses by you, but its flow goes past my lips alone. Why, tell me, did you wish me to be deprived of that little book of yours? Either I must seem to you too kulturlos to be able to judge, or at any rate malicious so as not to know how to praise! So you either traduced my intellect or my character. And still, against your ban, I have managed, barely, to discover that work’s secrets. 3. I’d like to be silent about what I feel; I’d like to get revenge with a justifiable silence about you, but admiration for your writings breaks through my hurt feelings. I knew your river myself, when some time ago I was a companion [i.e. comes] to the standards of the eternal emperors: it is the equal of great rivers, unequal to the greatest. This river, against my expectations, you have rendered with the dignity of your lofty verses greater than Egyptian Melo, colder than Scythian Tanais, and more famous than our fellow citizen here, the Tiber. I would absoluely not believe the many things you say about the rise and flow of the Mosel, if I didn’t know for sure that you don’t lie even in a poem. 4. Where did you find those swarms of river fish, so various in their names and their colours alike, so distinct as in their size so in their taste, which you with the palette of your song have coloured beyond the gifts of nature? Although I often experienced your table, and though I often marvelled at many other things which offered for consumption in the palace, I never managed to catch this sort of fish. When were these fish of yours born in your book (they never existed in serving dishes)? 5. You think I am joking and dealing in trifles? So may I be esteemed by the gods, I place this poem of yours by the books of Vergil. But now I’ll stop being cloying in praise of you and forgetful of my hurt, in case you also twist to your glory the fact that I am offended and amazed. Even if you scatter your books around and always leave me out, I’ll still enjoy your work—but other people’s generosity.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

A classics issue of TLS

The Times Literary Supplement covers classics very well - unsurprisingly, with Peter Stothard as Editor and Mary Beard as Classics editor. Their reviews on all subjects tend to be the right length, finding a golden mean between the curt notices of Literary Review or the newspapers, and the endless narcissistic non-reviews of the ghastly London Review of Books.

Those classicists who are not subscribers may want to buy this week's issue. It contains reviews by Mary Beard on two books, one on the Verrines (Margaret Miles) and one on the Borghese collections (Carole Paul), which she links by an argument about cultural property; Christopher Kelly on collections edited by Walter Scheidel and by Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and Achim Mittage on comparisons between the ancient Roman and Chinese empires; Peter Stothard on Robert Harris' new Cicero novel, Lustrum (which I'd rush out and buy, were it not that I can't see time to read novels coming up in the next few weeks); Rowland Smith on a new edition of Seneca's De Clementia by Susannah Braund; Denis Feeney on Ruth Webb's Demons and Dancers: performance in late antiquity, as well as an edited volume on ancient pantomime; Malcolm Schofield on the final volume of Simon Hornblower's monumental commentary on Thucydides (the one review which should definitely have been given more space); and Gail Trimble on Katharina Volk's book on Manilius.

In the novels section is a much slighter review of mine on a piece of popular fiction set in the ancient world, the second volume of Glyn Iliffe's Adventures of Odysseus. Regrettably, an editorial intervention at a late stage, after I had already corrected it back, led to the review implying that the book includes the tale of the Trojan horse. It doesn't. So I offer here the full review before cuts:

Glyn Iliffe, The Gates of Troy
478pp. Macmillan. £12.99
978 0 230 52929 8

One consolation for Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) was to be reminded through the film’s flaws of Homer’s brilliant selectiveness in narrative: the Iliad starts in medias res and ends with the sack of Troy still unachieved but inevitable (and thus evades the charming but silly story about the horse). The long list of those who have, with varying success, expanded and elaborated on Homer is now joined by Glyn Iliffe: his six-volume Adventures of Odysseus are projected to cover the hero’s whole career, though it appears that he may intend to focus on events not described in the Homeric poems. This, the second volume, opens ten years after the events of the first (King of Ithaca, 2008). Odysseus is established on Ithaca with Penelope and the newborn Telemachus, when the news comes of Helen’s elopement with Paris. The story is taken through a series of semi-familiar set pieces from the epic cycle – the feigned madness of Odysseus, Achilles among the women of Scyros, Iphigenia at Aulis, the marooning of Philoctetes – and climaxes with the Greeks landing at Troy.

Iliffe is a talented storyteller, but it is hard not to see him struggling somewhat with the episodic nature of the material, and also the fact that some of it is just as hard to take or describe seriously as the Trojan horse. Still, his plotting is very much helped by having the archetypal plotter as protagonist. Odysseus’ wiliness is sharpened by being observed through his guard-captain, Eperitus, a more stolid and traditional hero.

Eperitus does not know what to think when Odysseus tells him that ‘the age of heroes is gone… we’re entering a time of kings’. Eperitus’ uncertainty here can stand for what is distinctive and potentially problematic about this book. It straddles the genres of historical novel (a paradox in a period of which we know next to nothing), and fantasy (unlike Petersen, he keeps the gods in his story). Iliffe does not so much offer an imaginitive reconstruction of Greek life in the heroic age, in the manner of Mary Renault’s Theseus books, as a blend of elements taken from different periods of Greek history: Mycenaean, dark-age, and occasionally classical. Readers will have varying feelings about how successful this melange is – but they should consider that his practice is not so different from Homer’s.