What the Romans did

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • English Classical Scholarship: Historical Reflections on Bentley, Porson and Housman by C.O. Brink
    James Clark, 243 pp, £11.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 227 67872 9
  • Latin Poets and Roman Life by Jasper Griffin
    Duckworth, 226 pp, £24.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 7156 1970 5
  • The Mirror of Myth: Classical Themes and Variations by Jasper Griffin
    Faber, 144 pp, £15.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13805 5

Classical education is one thing, critical scholarship is another, and in his sketch of the history of Classical education in England, built around a detailed treatment of its three most celebrated figures, Professor Brink is concerned above all to describe and to make a case for the element of critical scholarship that Classical education may contain. Textual criticism is an important kind of critical scholarship, but it is not the only kind: one must discover what the authors actually wrote, but one must also determine the reliability of the documents and monuments surviving from the Ancient world.

Among the Humanists of the Renaissance only the occasional man of genius like Lorenzo Valla or Politian (Angelo Poliziano) made a critical approach to the ancient texts they studied. During the 16th century, eminent French scholars like Scaliger and Casaubon did so with notable effect, but most scholars were content to list readings in variorum editions and to collect historical ‘antiquities’. Until the 17th century this country remained, in this respect, on the fringe of Europe. Then Thomas Gataker, who turned down the Mastership of Trinity, practised critical scholarship in his commentary on Marcus Aurelius, and John Pearson, an eminent theologian, who was successively Master of Jesus, Master of Trinity and Bishop of Chester, displayed it in brilliant emendations of the text of Aeschylus.

In 1662 Richard Bentley, one of the greatest critical scholars, was born near Wakefield. In 1700 he became Master of Trinity, and despite continual battles with the fellows survived until the age of 80. Bentley was an outstanding textual critic. His famous edition of Horace has been thought to contain too many ingenious, even wild conjectures, but Professor Brink, who believes the text of Horace to be less well preserved than many scholars have allowed, is disposed to rate Bentley’s work particularly high. Many of his emendations, especially those in his edition of the astronomical poet Manilius, are certain or highly probable. But Brink is rightly concerned to point out that Bentley was more than a textual critic: he did epoch-making work – particularly in his famous dissertation which demonstrated the spuriousness of the letters attributed to the Sicilian tyrant Phalaris – towards establishing the methods by which truth may be elicited from ancient documents. Brink prefers to dwell on his friendship with Newton and savants, his promotion of science as well as humane studies, and his plans for college and university reform, rather than on the unedifying history of the many quarrels in which he was involved: indeed, he reproves Wilamowitz for having found these amusing. He does not approve of people who derive a low enjoyment from the story of how Bentley applied his emendatory skill to the text of Paradise Lost, explaining its corrupt state by the claim that it had been wilfully distorted by an amanuensis who had exploited Milton’s blindness. Quoting learned authorities, he gives Bentley credit for having raised important questions regarding Milton.

Those Englishmen who carried on the work of critical scholarship after Bentley concentrated on one aspect of his legacy: his textual criticism. But they neglected the rest. Richard Porson devoted his remarkable powers, when he was not drunk, to the emendation of the dialogue parts of Attic drama, and the same was true of a group of gifted English scholars active during the half-century before 1825, the year of what Housman called the ‘successive strokes of doom’ which consigned Dobree and Elmsley to the grave and Blomfield to the bishopric of Chester. Brink shows how Housman adapted a remark of Wilamowitz in order to make this famous sentence, and shows us why it is amusing.

But after this time critical scholarship was little practised in 19th-century England, and when it did appear it was for many years outside the universities: for half a century no Oxford or Cambridge scholar produced anything comparable to Grote’s history of Greece and his work on Plato and Aristotle. Although Classical education flourished in the public schools and in the ancient universities, critical scholarship had little part in it. Teachers in these institutions were far more interested in translation from English into the Ancient languages, and in the inculcation of received notions about history and philosophy. Brink remarks that ‘the change poses an historical problem of some complexity’, but gives no kind of answer; nor do we find one in Robin Jenkyns’s elegant coffee-table book, The Victorians and Ancient Greece, or in the far more searching Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain by F.M. Turner. One important cause of this failure was that though the universities became increasingly secularised during the century, especially after the University Commission of the Fifties, they were not quickly emancipated from the long domination of the clergy. Of course many clergymen, including Bentley, have been critical scholars, but in general people accustomed to training others in the acceptance of established orthodoxy do not readily adopt a critical attitude towards documents. In Germany, where the universities were strictly secular, the atmosphere was very different.

After the University Commission critical scholarship was practised more and more in the universities. H.A.J. Munro, Professor of Latin at Cambridge from 1869 to 1872, and Ingram Bywater, Professor of Greek at Oxford from 1893 to 1908, were scholars of very great distinction. Sir Richard Jebb (1842-1905), Professor of Greek at Cambridge, was in some ways a typical product of Victorian Cambridge, but he also practised critical scholarship in a distinctive way. He was not learned as some of his German contemporaries were learned: but he had a remarkable feeling for Greek, and often the ingenious conjectures of German scholars stimulated him to show why the author had written, not what was conjectured, but what was in the manuscripts. His commentary on Sophocles, written in an English style in which the most delicate nuances can be expressed, is in its way a masterpiece, and retains great value, though Brink echoes the somewhat condescending tone in which Wilamowitz wrote about him.

Housman was a towering figure in Latin scholarship. Brink devotes two chapters to him, and for him Housman, like Bentley, can do no wrong. Housman’s career illustrates in a striking way the 19th-century tendency for literature and art to turn away in horror from the alarming reality of their surroundings and to retreat into a world of their own. At a time when German scholars like Wilamowitz, whom Housman admired, were studying ancient civilisation as a whole, thus establishing methods which historians concerned with later periods could profitably follow – Mommsen’s most eminent pupil was Max Weber – Housman persevered in the 18th-century mode of confining himself to textual criticism. The masterly commentary that accompanies his edition of Manilius is wholly concentrated on the establishment of the text. Brink tells again the familiar story of how Housman read to a Cambridge lecture audience his beautiful romantic translation of Horace’s poem that begins Diffugere nives, and then ‘said hurriedly, like a man betraying a secret, “That I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,” ’ and rushed out of the room. Housman was a scholar of the highest order as well as a minor poet who wrote a number of exquisite poems, and he deserves great respect. Nevertheless, it was his duty as Professor of Latin to explain, as far as possible, how the poet had produced such an effect. His gifts were so remarkable that despite Brink’s disapproval I cannot be sorry for having expressed regret that the inhibitions that affected him, as they did other 19th-century romantics, led him to keep his poetry and his scholarship in separate compartments. I have heard a Cambridge Classical scholar say that Housman’s influence on Cambridge education had been in many ways unfortunate: the ferocity of his polemics discouraged people from trying, and he helped to promote a polarisation between textual critics (sometimes alarmingly dry) and literary critics (sometimes distressingly wet). It would ill become the writer of this review to disparage Cambridge, but it is arguable that Oxford, largely through the influence of refugees from Germany who had been taught or influenced by Wilamowitz, has in recent times succeeded better in combining critical scholarship with literary interpretation.

Professor Brink has concentrated his energies on severe studies, explaining Horace’s epistles about the art of poetry in three learned and laborious volumes. He finds fault with me for having written that ‘we study Antiquity in order to use it for our own purposes.’ He seems to think that I meant that this entitles us to find in Antiquity whatever we wish to find. But I have always tried to study ancient texts without interpolating modern notions. Doubtless I have fallen short of the high seriousness and conscious righteousness which pervade this solid, meritorious but rather stodgy little book.

As it happens, Jasper Griffin’s two books protest vigorously against that separation of literature and life which was a final product of Romanticism. They make exhilarating reading. Latin Poets and Roman Life starts with the remark that the Augustan poets of Rome raise the question of the relationship between experience and convention, between individual life and inherited forms of expression. It was once the fashion to treat their love-poems as direct recordings of experience. Scholars composed lives of Catullus by arranging in a conjectural order the love-poems mentioning the lady whom he called Lesbia, and confidently told the public what roles were played in the life of Horace by Cinara, Lydia and Chloe. When the futility of this became apparent, scholars reacted by assuring the reader whenever a poet mentioned a lady that the episode in which she figured could have nothing whatever to do with real life. Jasper Griffin takes a middle view, suggesting that the scholar should aim at discovering the tone and setting of poems instead of reconstructing the poet’s vie passionelle. Augustan Rome was full of lovers whose style in loving was related to the luxurious life of the Roman upper classes of the time.

The discussion of Greek influences on Rome, Griffin suggests, has been over-intellectualised. The tendency of the work of the last fifty years has been to show that the Italian peninsula was permeated with Greek influences at a far earlier date than used to be supposed. From the end of the Hannibalic Wars, when Rome was thrown into close contact with Greeks in Italy and in the Greek territories of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Roman upper classes took over the whole Greek apparatus for creating the amenities of life. Not only literature and art but travel, wine, food, dress, perfume, cookery, jewellery, theatres, gambling – as these things had been developed by the Hellenistic rulers and their courtiers – were now taken over by the wealthier Romans. Greeks were at hand to assist them with expert advice in various capacities, among them the splendid courtesans who figure in the chroniques scandaleuses of the Hellenistic age.

Augustus, it might be objected, disapproved of this sort of thing and tried to repress it by his sumptuary and matrimonial legislation. But Griffin reminds us that the existence of laws forbidding certain practices does not always mean that these practices do not continue: just as the Webbs’ belief that certain practices forbidden by Soviet law did not exist in Russia turned out to be mistaken, so despite the Lex Scantinia against homosexuality Augustan Rome contained at least twenty-eight people with the suggestive name Paederos, and a special festival for male prostitutes figured in the state’s religious calendar.

It is clear that there was much homosexual activity, and much heterosexual activity that was extra-matrimonial. Were Propertius’s Cynthia and Ovid’s Corinna prostitutes, or were they married ladies? If the former, they were accomplished members of the aristocracy of their profession, akin to the grandes horizontales of the Regency period, like Harriette Wilson. Married women often had affairs with men who were not their husbands: Augustus’s own daughter Julia followed the example of great ladies of the late Republic like Clodia, wife of Metellus Celer, and Fausta, daughter of the dictator Sulla.

Griffin points out that the career of one of the most celebrated Romans of the first century BC supplied a model for the love-poets, not only because of the luxury and elegance of his manner of living, but also because of the singular devotion to a woman which marked his life and indeed caused his downfall: this is Marcus Antonius, whose attachment to Cleopatra is a conspicuous example of the kind of devotion which Propertius claims he felt for his own mistress, Cynthia. But Antonius was not the only Roman man of action who could combine military and political activity on a grand scale with the pursuit of pleasure, after the manner of the Hellenistic princes such as Demetrius Poliorcetes. Julius Caesar himself was a notable example of the type, which survived into the Imperial period in the guise of men like Otho and Petronius. Even Augustus, at least during the early part of his career, seems not to have been without a taste for some of the pursuits which his propaganda against Antonius denounced. He took his wife Livia from her first husband while she was pregnant, and Griffin observes that certain remarkably frank verses which are ascribed to him are likely to be genuine.

Griffin launches a much-needed protest against the crude application of the notion of literary genre which has become fashionable among scholars of the kind who will always try to make any new and good idea into a recipe for the mechanical obtaining of results. Starting from the legitimate observation that the different genres of ancient literature had rules and patterns of their own, these scholars have tried to find the key to each poem in its classification as a komos, the arrival to serenade a lady of a lover or of a whole party of young men who have been drinking; a propemptikon, a poem written to speed a friend on a journey; an epibaterion, a poem written to welcome a distinguished visitor, and so on. Griffin shows how, although classification under such headings may be of some value, it is far from sufficient by itself to extract all the meaning out of the poems, and issues a salutary warning against the notion that the rhetorical handbooks of the second century AD and later, which scholars of this kind have been making into a guide to the understanding of poets most of whom lived much earlier, will answer such a purpose.

Griffin goes on to draw a fascinating picture of the luxurious life of Imperial Rome that served as background for the poetry of Propertius and Ovid or Horace and Tibullus. He points out that much of the verse they wrote about mythological persons has a direct relation to the life of their own time. Horace’s poems about Bacchus were not unconnected with the drinking-parties at which wealthy Romans sampled the choicest vintages. Poems about beautiful girls swimming almost or entirely naked, like Ovid’s account of how the nymph Salmacis seduced a beautiful young man, with the result that they fused into the first hermaphrodite, relate closely to what went on at seaside resorts like Baiae on the Bay of Naples – Salmacis being the prototype of the seaside vamp. Roman women wore so many clothes that the idea of nakedness was particularly enticing. Propertius could dwell on the idea that in ancient Sparta girls took exercise with men, so that Helen might have been observed with very little on.

Arranged marriages were customary, which helps to explain the frequency of extra-marital relations. Yet the poets sometimes write of passionate love inside marriage, as we see from the frankness of the epithalamium written by Catullus for the marriage of two members of great Roman families. Poets skirt the delicate topic of presents or payments to their mistresses; they may pay lip service to the poetic commonplace of the lover’s poverty, even though in reality they are comfortably off. Similar commonplaces lead them to present in roseate colours even aspects of amatory life that are usually found to be quite unedifying: Tibullus paints a sentimental picture of his Delia’s mother, whose affability towards him might be depicted in a less favourable light. Lovers demanded that their passionate requirements be taken seriously, and in poetry this demand issued in two contrasting and indeed apparently opposite ideas. One was the idea of rape, with which the poets amuse themselves. (Griffin aptly quotes Sade’s remark that to make fornication really interesting one needs to take virgins, nuns or highly respectable women as victims, and we are sometimes reminded of Laclos.) The other is the notion of passionate women whose desires are as powerful as the man’s, and this too supplies the poets with material.

A chapter entitled ‘Love and Death’ recalls their association in the art of the Renaissance, powerfully depicted in the chapter of Edgar Wind’s Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance called ‘Amor as a God of Death’. Lovers in poetry will often wish for death or threaten suicide, and the poets sometimes delight in imagining their own funerals or those of their loved ones. Propertius dwells on the funeral of Cynthia and the appearance of her unquiet ghost with a morbidity approaching that of Poe or Baudelaire. In what is perhaps the most memorable line in all his work, he imagines the numberless beautiful women who are dead: sunt apud infernos tot milia formosarum. The poets compose real or fictitious epitaphs, describe life in the underworld and dwell on the idea of the tomb, which in certain stories even serves as a place for making love.

The last three chapters of the book are somewhat loosely connected to its leading theme. In one of them Griffin raises the perennially perplexing question of the relation of the Fourth Book of Virgil’s Georgics to the rest of the poem. The book describes how the bees of Aristaeus died of a mysterious complaint, and how he learned that he could replace them only if he appeased the shade of Orpheus, whose journey to Hades to recover his lost wife Eurydice is movingly described. Griffin suggests that the bees whose ordered republic is sympathetically displayed represent Rome. They recover from catastrophe, and their state continues to exist, but the singer Orpheus and his loved one perish, just as in the Aeneid Aeneas accomplishes his mission and lays the foundation of the future Rome, while others like Dido and Pallas, Lausus and Turnus must be sacrificed.

Griffin also refutes the theory that the Aeneid is influenced by typology, a term borrowed from Biblical criticism. Typology is defined as ‘the process of seeking correspondences between persons and events not (as allegory does) in meanings hidden in language, but actually in the course of history and looking not to the fulfilment of a prediction but to the recurrence of a pattern’. He argues that there is no need to look beyond familiar Greek and Roman ways of thinking in order to explain Virgil’s characters and their actions, and he shows that while it is wrong to find typology, and even allegory, in the poem, it has a close and subtle relation to Roman life and history. Touching on the vexed question of the origins of Roman elegy, Griffin finds that the drama, tragedy as well as comedy, is not without its influence on that genre. The young lovers and flamboyant hetairas of comedy, and the lamenting heroines of tragedy, were not unfamiliar to the poets who wrote of love.

Griffin begins his Eliot Lectures, The Mirror of Myth, by contrasting the attitude of Eliot, who wrote that ‘the bloodstream of European literature is Latin and Greek,’ with that of Larkin, who found Classical references to be a liability to the modern poet. Myth in the sense which Griffin gives it is not restricted to stories from mythology, for in one sense Cleopatra is a myth no less than Helen. He requires of a myth that it be familiar, vivid, plastic and significant. We have the advantage of being able to use the stories from a developed culture very different from our own but recognisably its ancestor and so common to the whole of Europe. As Griffin remarks, and as his work helps to show, ‘it is posssible to make Classical learning into a living, not a dead, thing.’ Although myth would be unsuitable in Larkin’s poetry, Eliot, Yeats and Auden supply Griffin with some admirable illustrations of his view.

The Greeks’ gods, he says at the start of a chapter called ‘The Apotheosis of Pleasure’ in which he reworks some of the material present in his other book, enjoy pleasure, and their enjoyment can invest it with dignity and emancipate from guilt, so that there was no need for anybody in the ancient world to proclaim, as progressive clergymen are now having to proclaim, that ‘sexuality is after all highly acceptable to God.’ The Roman conquest of Greece opened up to that unromantic race all the refinements and all the dissipations of an older and incomparably more sophisticated culture. The use of Greek mythology made by Roman poets and artists reflected this opening-up. In a chapter called ‘The Endurance of Pain’, Griffin shows how the heroes of Greek myth demonstrated their heroism by endurance, while the gods – though sometimes feeling sympathy for mortal pain – are themselves exempt from suffering. The concept of heroism, he remarks, is difficult for many moderns to accept, since ‘our age does not find it easy to grant such greatness to anyone.’ And he exemplifies this from the mistreatment of Shakespeare by vain and ignorant theatricals interested only in the supposed social implications of his work and more sympathetic to Creon than to Antigone. In the last chapter, ‘Heroism, Epic and Forgiveness’, Griffin justly remarks that the Greeks had little use for the notion of forgiveness, which, like that of repentance, is Christian; compassion is a Greek virtue, but it is an expression of superiority.