Reading Ovid – The Lover is Not a Fighter

{First in a Series}

Ovid is a Comedian. That’s the best way to read him. Taking him seriously will wear on you after a while. It’s impossible to wind yourself up, in text, to the extent he does, without at least a notion of self-overhearing. Someone does not spend that much time arguing that it’s all Cupid’s fault that he’s a crying simp, without intending that it be found funny.

I was about to sing, in heroic strain, of arms and fierce combats. ‘Twas a subject suited to my verse, whose lines were all of equal measure. But Cupid, so ’tis said, began to laugh, and stole away one foot.

Ovid, Elegy I

This is how he begins, and what I want to draw your attention to is how meta it is. The first sentence is an obvious reference to the Aneid. The second and third are primarily about the kind of verse that is used in epic poetry. Greek Roman epics were usually written in dactylic hexameter, that is to say, six dactyls in a line. Dactyls have a long syllable and two short syllables. But elegaic couplets, supposedly introduced by Quintus Ennius in the 3rd Century BC, shaved one of the dactyls off every other line. That’s what “stole away one foot” refers to.

So he’s starting with clever references. Which, who could blame him. We all sprinkle allusions into our writing and even everyday speech. This is no one-off, however, he runs through this for an entire chapter lamenting the surrender of all other gods to Cupid, and ending with the same joke.

Farewell fierce War, Farewell the Measure too. Only with the myrtle of the salt sea’s marge shalt thou bind thy fair head, my Muse, who needs must tune thy numbers to eleven feet.

Ovid, Elegy I

It’s a callback, and for all its poetic formality, it reeks like the salt sea’s marge of irony (“marge” is an old way of saying “margin” or “edge”, and myrtle is a plant or flower sacred to Venus). Ovid embraces his un-Roman subject knowingly, with a frisson of stagey passion barely masking a sly wink. You want to roll your eyes at him, and you will, but you’ll know that he’s in on the joke his making of himself.

Worth the study.

Lucretius’ Poetic Epicureanism

There once was an Epicurean Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus, who lived in the 1st Century BC. I say “Epicurean” as a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicureanism began as a combination of an empirical epistemology (we can know things only insofar as we can observe them), atomistic materialism (there is nothing but atoms and the void) with concomitant naturalistic evolution, and a kind of agnostic Deism which early Buddhism would find agreeable. The simplistic reduction of all this, “seek pleasure, avoid pain” made the word “epicurean” a synonym for “libertine”. Mass awareness always destroys nuance.

Lucretius was an Epicurean of the old school, however, and composed a poem to Preach the Good News of Epicurus, called On the Nature of Things . It is not the most entertaining of works. Poetry can be a good vehicle for philosophy, but overall Lucretius appears to be one of those fellows in love with the sound of his own voice. I don’t mind volubility in Virgil; he’s telling a ripping yarn, and while the plot of the Aeneid moves slowly from point A to B, there’s plenty of action on the way. But listening to Lucretius tell me how good his arguments and sound his proofs are gets old quickly. Roman Stoics, at least going by Seneca, had at least the good sense to be laconic.

That said, one or two passages do leap off the page as good analogies:

Men shot; the hills
re-echoing hurl their voices toward the stars;
the cavalry whele, then suddenly post and pound
with earthquake power across the open fields.
Yet high in the hills there is a place from which
They seem a motionless bright spot on the plain.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, II.327-332

This perspective-shift serves to explain a problem with atomism described several lines above (II.309-310), that of “why, though all the basic particles are in motion, their total seems to stand at total rest.” Lucretius is at his best at moments like this, painting a picture to honor the bright and illumine the dark parts of his adopted philosophy. I argued in my post about “Cuties” (remember that? That was only a few months ago. This year is a lifetime) that Art achieves its highest form as a vehicle for ideas. It does not have to do that consciously in order to be successful, but it can aim for immortality that way. There’s no reason that someone in 21st-Century America should have found this in the poetry section of a Barnes & Noble, other than its a higher and nobler form of Art. Stylistic quibbles aside, that merits the consideration.

Caligula will have things to say about him, as I have mentioned.

Ovid, Virgil, and Lucretius Walk Into a Palace…

Back when I first conceived The Meditations of Caius Caligulia, I had a list of books I wanted to read to give me inspiration and background. Writers have to be readers, and I had the broad strokes of what I wanted to do, without the details. Details are key.

So I needed to read, at the very least, Suetonius’ chapter on Caligulia, and I, Claudius by Robert Graves (I was familiar with the BBC miniseries). I wanted to have a go at Camus’ play of Caligulia, because I’d been reading some Camus anyway, and because the “ennui-into-tyranny” line intrigued me.

These were the books that gave me the narrative structure of the project: Who Caligulia was, and why he acted that way. The novella is now finished, or at least, drafted. What does it need now?

I greatly enjoy the voice of the character: how he dances between flights of theophanic fancy and rigorous political meditations. However, I need a certain level of climax for the ending, and to do that, I will have to deep dive into some of the literature current in Little Boots’ time. These are:

  • Ovid’s Love Books. Ovid was a poet of the creeping epicureanism of Rome’s upper class. A kind of window on the Satyricon (which I also might read).
  • Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. A Hellenized Roman, a philospher of the capital-E Epicurean school. He’s already mentioned in the existing first Chapter, when Caligulia refers to him as “that atomist”
  • The aforementioned Aeneid

I pick all of these because they were current to the time, i.e., the late 1st century BC-early 1st century AD. Caligulia might have actually read them. And they speak to the culture of that time: the dawn of Rome’s Imperial Age and the concomitant cultural syncretism. I need to feed a blend of them into my not-quite-mad emperor, so that he can rise to his fullest. I do not know when I’ll have finished this process, but I’ve already had fun doing it.

Pompey’s Counter-Insurgency

Quintus Curtius has a fine article on his web site about Pompey’s most impressive victory:

Every victory seems easy in retrospect, of course.  But the campaign against the pirates was successful for very specific reasons.  They are as follows:  (1) deployment of sufficient forces to deal with the threat; (2) assignment of specific sectors of operation to local commanders, with each one made responsible for what happened in his area; (3) relentless pursuit of fleeing pirates so that they could not rest or hide; (4) a policy of “paroling” captured pirates and allowing them to return to their homes provided that they swore to abandon crime; (5) execution of the worst offenders; and (6) the capture of the main pirate strongholds in Cilicia.

These principles translate well to the modern age:

  • Overwhelming Force – The insurgent must respect your strength, and eventually learn to fear attacking you.
  • Divide, Clear, and Hold – pick the areas where they are weakest. Secure these first. Then painstakingly expand into areas where they are stronger, and drive them out of these. Pompey didn’t try to do it all at once; he ground them slowly down. This is the only thing that has ever worked.
  • Mercy to the Masses, Punishment to the Criminals – As Sun Tzu reminds us, men with no possibility of escape will fight to the death. The impulse to treat all insurgents the same must be avoided. During the Chinese Civil War, the Communists made it a policy to release Nationalist enlisted men who surrendered, and only imprison or kill their officers. This made it hard for the Nationalists armies to maintain fighting morale. The United States Army used a similar policy to great effect against Aguinaldo and the Phillipine insurgents at the turn of the 20th century. Any rebel could surrender and be paroled; only those accused of specific crimes would be punished.
  • Co-ordination. The disadvantage of government forces is that they lack the complete freedom of movement the guerrilla has, being weight down by the need to defend territory and the weight of institutional impedimenta. But with shared responsibility and independent action, they can bring their strength to bear.
  • Attack Their Sanctuary. None of the above matters if the insurgents can constantly regroup safely. Successful insurgents almost always have safe areas where their enemies cannot or will not go (North Vietnam and Cambodia, Tribal Areas of Pakistan, etc.). All effort must be made not to allow this.  When insurgents have no sanctuary, and their supplies are cut off, their institutional weaknesses become fatal.

A Defense of Brutus?

Over at Signature Reads, a review of Barry Strauss’ The Death of Caesar. Strauss’ take is that the assassination, whatever the particular motivations of the various actors, was at root a defense of liberty and an attack on tyranny, and so ought be commended.

Now, I’ve written on this topic myself. Back in 2016, I argued the opposite, that the assassins, in striking Caesar down, made him more powerful than they dared imagine:

 Julius Caeser was assassinated at the beginning of a public meeting of the Senate by 12 Senators who had decided that Julius Caeser was a threat to the Republic, that his becoming Dictator  Perpetuus was the latest in a string of unconstitutional excesses that would end in Rome becoming an authoritarian state.

In this, they were almost certainly correct.

But in assassinating them, they made that state certain. In assassinating Caesar, they made him a martyr, and themselves – and the cause they espoused – the enemies of good order. Within a few years, the Roman imperium is divided among Caeser’s heirs. Within 20, Octavian has legally obtained from a tame Senate all the authority that matters. And the Roman people stood mum as long peace obtained.

If Caesar had served out his time, even as Dictator Perpetuus, elections might have followed. Octavian, at the time of Caesar’s death, was a nobody, who became important precisely because he was Caesar’s heir. Now, it may be that Caesar would have pushed him up the cursus honorum during that long dictatorship. But the opportunity to seize power and exercise it ruthlessly happened because Caesar became a god in death. Shakespeare has Caesar’s ghost haunting Brutus and Cassius for a reason.

Strauss apparently acknowledges this:

And yet Strauss concludes that the conspirators were heroes after all. “If they didn’t save the Republic, they saved republicanism.” If they hadn’t acted, Strauss argues, Caesar and his successors would have felt no threat to their power. But they did act, and because they did, “as long as men and women remember the names of those who killed Julius Caesar, dictators will not sleep safely.”

And to be fair, only about a third of Caesar’s successors died in their beds. But this did not prevent the Empire from perpetuating. However many Caesars were stabbed, there was always another eager to take his place, and a Praetorian Guard happy to crown him. The assassins missed their mark; the problem was not Caesar. The problem was that the wealth of the Mediterranean world drove a wedge between the Senators and the People. Neither could trust the other, both handed power over to a strong man rather than let the other win. And so liberty died.

As it happens, Caius Caligulia will have some thoughts on this topic in his Meditations. Watch this space.

This is happening.

Welcome to Imperial Rome

Victor Davis Hanson calls out the steps, and our progressive New Class masters dance to them:

Sometime in the mid-first century a.d., an otherwise little known consular official, Gaius Petronius, wrote a brilliant satirical novel about the gross and pretentious new Roman-imperial elite. The Satyricon is an often-cruel parody about how the Roman agrarian republic of old had degenerated into a wealth-obsessed, empty society of wannabe new elites, flush with money, and both obsessed with and bored with sex. Most of the Satyricon is lost. But in its longest surviving chapter — “Dinner with Trimalchio” — Petronius might as well have been describing our own 21st-century nomenklatura.

For the buffoonish libertine guests of the host Trimalchio, food and sex are in such surfeit that they have to be repackaged in bizarre and repulsive ways. Think of someone like the feminist mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner, who once railed about the need to enforce sexual-harassment laws, now only to discover ever creepier ways to grope, pat, grab, squeeze, pinch, and slobber on 18 co-workers and veritable strangers, whether in their 20s or over 60. Unfortunately, the sexual luridness does not necessarily end with Filner’s resignation; one of his would-be replacements is already under attack by his opponents on allegations that as a city councilman he was caught masturbating in the city-hall restroom between public meetings.

He’s just getting warmed up, but I’ll cut to the chase:

Just as Petronius’s world went on for another 400 years, ours may too.

Read the whole thing.