Sunday, September 26, 2010

Decolor Aetas

The notion of a "golden age" must be common to virtually all cultures, given the frequency with which the idea crops up in the world's literature. The Romans, of course, liked to imagine an era of pastoral bliss, presided over by their ancient spirit Saturnus, who was subsequently equated with the Greek Cronos.

For Virgil, however, the "golden age" exists in both the past and the future. So much is clear enough from the dreamy predictions of the fourth eclogue, and several passages of the Aeneid hint at the restoration of Rome's traditional virtues under Augustus. All of which makes the following passage, from Book 8 of the Aeneid, fascinating.

Book 8 is, of course, the Aeneid's patriotic parenthesis, taking Aeneas away from the war for a while to be taught about the humble origins of Rome-to-be, its glorious history, and its religious and social values. Evander, the Arcadian king who acts as his guide, introduces Aeneas to the land on which Rome is to stand, and gives voice to the Roman belief in a blessed past:

primus ab aetherio venit Saturnus Olympo
arma Iovis fugiens et regnis exsul ademptis.
is genus indocile ac dispersum montibus altis
composuit legesque dedit, Latiumque vocari
maluit, his quoniam latuisset tutus in oris.
aurea quae perhibent illo sub rege fuere
saecula: sic placida populos in pace regebat,
deterior donec paulatim ac decolor aetas
et belli rabies et amor successit habendi.

"First came Saturn, from heavenly Olympus, fleeing from Jupiter's weapons, an exile from his stolen kingdom. He brought order to people who were uneducated and scattered among the high mountains; he gave them laws, and preferred for the country to be called Latium, since he had hidden (latuisset) safely in these lands. And they say that the era under that ruler was golden; thus he held sway over the people in untroubled peace, until a degenerate and tarnished time gradually took over, along with the frenzy of war and the love of possession."

(Virgil, Aeneid VIII, 319-327)

Plenty of talking points:

Line 319: almost a golden line, spoiled only by the preposition "ab"! Certainly it is a majestic beginning to the story, with the emphatically-placed "primus", along with the later "indocile", suggesting a bringer of knowledge and skills to a primitive people. There are similarities here with Lucretius's depictions of Epicurus, and in fact the whole passage is very reminiscent of Lucretius.
321: "indocile" is an interesting word choice. The more natural indoctum would fit the metre perfectly well, so why the idea of an "unteachable race", rather than an "untaught" one? Did it perhaps need a being of divine qualities to bring order and civilisation to the primitive inhabitants of Latium...and is there a hint at similar qualities in Augustus, the putative renewer of Saturnian utopia?
322: the emphatic placement of "composuit" is surely quite deliberate. The very word suggests the union of disparate elements, and as a metaphor for civilisation it could hardly be bettered. The mention of "leges", too, fits well with Virgil's theme; the rule of law, so fragile during the past century of Roman history, is seen as central to a properly functioning nation. silent leges inter arma? Not any more, if Augustus (or Virgil) has anything to do with it.
323: a cute bit of folk etymology, beloved of the Roman poets.
324: and here is "aurea" at last, emphatically placed (as is "saecula", its complement, later on). And another interesting word choice: why "perhibent", normally an intransitive verb after all, instead of the metrically acceptable dicunt or memorant? Impossible to know for sure, but I would suggest that perhibent has more of a sense of certainty about it (note the per- prefix); they don't just say it was a golden age, they maintain that it was.
325: the obvious alliteration of the "p" sounds, often indicative of power or violence, here seems to suggest the majesty of Saturnus, a just ruler who commands respect merely by the authority of his personality; by coincidence, Livy makes a similar comment about Evander, the narrator of this passage, in the first book of his Roman history.
326: the rhythm slows down as we go from golden age to decadence, perhaps an appropriate word to use in English given the proliferation of "d" sounds in the line, which balances the repetition of "p" in line 325. And here we have the beautifully constructed phrase "decolor...aetas". Of course decolor is used in a moral sense (the generations following have lost their way), but the image of a golden age going off-colour is cleverly expressed.
327: a splendidly enigmatic line to finish. "belli rabies" is obvious enough as a symptom of the lost lustre of Rome's pristine virtues, but "amor"?!? We have to wait until the emphatic final position for the unexpected finish: "habendi". It is love, in a sense, but it is really the desire or lust for gain. For Virgil, the phrase is probably redolent of the period following the "enlightened" age of the Scipios, in which there was no Carthage to keep Rome honest (as it were) and endless possibilities for personal enrichment among the nobility.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Opici Mures

Juvenal's most controversial satire, and one of his most well-known, is the magnificently gloomy third. Its depiction of the daily dangers, humiliations and frustrations of life in a big city (Rome, in this case) is still full of relevance today; Juvenal's Rome could be New York, London or even my own beloved Sydney circa 2010. All of Juvenal's characters are still around: the arrogant self-made men, the drunks spoiling for a fight after another miserable night out, and of course people like the grumpy "narrator", Umbricius, who feel that they've been completely left behind by the urban zeitgeist.

There is plenty of seething anger in the poem, although Juvenal cagily expresses it through the vehicle of Umbricius (in some of his later satires, notably the apoplectic fifteenth, he has no problems ranting in the first person singular). But there are tender moments of pathos as well, and one of these is the topic of this post: the tale of Cordus, a poor man with a literary bent, whose top-floor flat gets consumed in one of the many fires that broke out in the Roman slums. The description of Cordus's living conditions is masterly:

lectus erat Cordo Procula minor, urceoli sex
ornamentum abaci, nec non et parvulus infra
cantharus et recubans sub eodem marmore Chiron,
iamque vetus Graecos servabat cista libellos
et divina opici rodebant carmina mures.
nil habuit Cordus, quis enim negat? et tamen illud
perdidit infelix totum nihil. ultimus autem
aerumnae cumulus, quod nudum et frusta rogantem
nemo cibo, nemo hospitio tectoque iuvabit.

"Cordus's bed was too small for Procula, and six little jugs decorated the marble table, not to mention a tiny cup underneath, and a Chiron lying on his back beneath the same marble, and here was an old box containing little Greek books, and uncultured mice were gnawing at the magnificent poems. Cordus had nothing...who could deny it? And yet the poor fellow lost that whole nothing that he had. Yet the final straw in his suffering is that, when he's got no clothes left and is begging for a bite, no-one will give him food, no-one will let him in and give him a roof over his head."

(Juvenal, Satire III, 203-211)


Line 203: The otherwise unknown "Procula" was presumably a famous dwarf, and as an introduction to this picture of poverty this works well.
204: the ironic "ornamentum", in emphatic position, portrays Cordus's straitened circumstances superbly; the only thing he has to "adorn" his marble table is six cheap jugs, which would otherwise be kept out of sight. "nec non", a quick litotes, is also gently ironic: "Oh yes, there was also...". "parvulus cantharus" is almost an oxymoron, given that a cantharus was supposed to be a grand wine-vessel; the diminutive parvulus makes Codrus's specimen seem even more embarrassing.
205: there is some dissension as to the word "Chiron" here: is it a statue (of the Centaur of the same name), or is it a pet dog, given that Chiron was a relatively common name for canine companions? Although the image of a faithful dog lying on its back ready for a tickle is a touching one, the former interpretation is probably correct, and meant as another indication that Cordus is a man of some taste despite his slender means; the detail "recubans" perhaps suggests that Cordus's poor statue has had its pedestal broken!
206: "servabat" is a well-chosen word. The box was "holding" the books, but it was also "preserving" the literature within...again, there is a suggestion that Cordus has a sense of what is really important.
207: a truly beautiful and moving line (it would, in fact, be a golden line but for the "et" at the beginning). The arrival of the mice again shows how difficult Cordus's living conditions are, but the humorous epithet "opici", a word borrowed from Greek (perhaps all the more apt for that), is applied to anyone without the patina of education. The implication seems to be that Cordus is fighting a losing battle against the barbarous intrusion of the big city on his humble pleasures; even the mice are against him! The double meaning of "rodebant" is also worth mentioning; although the word carries a basic sense of biting or gnawing (hence English words such as rodent and erosion), it has a secondary meaning of "criticising", also in a literary sense. Those tasteless mice!
208: the encapsulation of Cordus's situation is meant to evoke pathos, and of course it does. "nil" in emphatic position is followed by the rhetorical question "quis enim negat?", with the indicative negat perhaps suggesting more certainty than the more natural subjunctive neget.
209: again, a careful emphatic placement, this time of "perdidit", and the oxymoron "totum nihil" nicely demonstrates the scale of poor Cordus's loss. But with "ultimus", we learn that there's more to come.
211: the tragic end. No-one will help him, with "nemo" both emphatically placed and repeated in anaphora. The message: in a big city, no-one has time or pity for a poor man.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mala Gramina

Everyone has their personal No.1 fear. For my wife, it is spiders. For the fictional Winston Smith, famously, it was rats. For me, it is snakes.

This is not due to some terrifying childhood experience, or a disturbing film scene that was impossible to forget. I've simply always found the idea of long, slithering, limbless creatures capable of killing with a single bite to be blood-chilling. I have a feeling that Virgil may have had the same fear, such is the frightening effectiveness of the snake-simile attached to Pyrrhus in Book 2 of the Aeneid:

Vestibulum ante ipsum primoque in limine Pyrrhus
exsultat telis et luce coruscus aena:
qualis ubi in lucem coluber mala gramina pastus,
frigida sub terra tumidum quem bruma tegebat,
nunc, positis novus exuviis nitidusque iuventa,
lubrica convolvit sublato pectore terga
arduus ad solem, et linguis micat ore trisulcis.

"At the very entrance, right by the door, was Pyrrhus, delighting in his weaponry and resplendent in the bronze light of his armour. Just like a snake that has come into the light, after feeding on evil grass; the chilly winter has hidden it underground, full to bursting, and now, brand new after shedding its skin and glossy with youthful vigour, it lifts up its underbelly and arches its slithery back high into the sun, its mouth flashing with its triple-forked tongue."

(Virgil, Aeneid II, 469-475)

Let'sssss sssssssee...

Line 469: as so often in Virgil, the central character in the new scene has his introduction carefully delayed until the emphatic final position. The first part of this line is somewhat formulaic, but what follows is not.
470: even before the mention of the snake, we have a hint of the sounds that will dominate the succeeding lines: at the beginning of the line, the rhythm is spondaic and "t" and "l" sounds proliferate; already a delicate, slithery sound is apparent. Then, towards the end, the assonance of "u" becomes more pronounced.
471: the assonance of "u" continues, with the suggestion that something grim and frightening is about to be introduced. Sure enough, it's a "coluber", and it isn't just the provebial snake in the is a snake who has fed on bad grass! (No pun intended, for those with vivid memories of the sixties.) In a sense, this is just a paraphrase of Homer's κακὰ φαρμακα in a similar passage, but the assonance of "a" sounds here gives the phrase a particularly harsh touch.
472: another cleverly-constructed line in which the first word, "frigida", sets the tone, while another repeated sound combination - "tumidum quem bruma" - provides the perfect backdrop for the emergence of the snake in the spring. (Would it be too fanciful to even consider the end of the line as like a drumroll prior to the entrance of the snake in its new skin?)
473: the words "novus" and "nitidus", and especially "iuventa", are in a sense ironic since these bywords for youth and vitality hardly seem to belong in such a dark simile! But we are reminded here that although Pyrrhus is on murder bent (the murder of Priam, to be precise), he is bursting with youth and strength.
474: the "u" sound is prominent again, as is the repeated "l" which seems to suggest the snake licking its lips in anticipation of its first kill.
475: again, the first word sets the tone: the snake lifts is body high, to appear especially frightening to its prey. The splendid finish, with the snake flashing its fangs and tongue and the "i" and "s" sounds hinting at the vicious accompanying hiss, lingers in the memory.

I think I'll avoid the Australian outback at all costs, thank you very much.