Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pretiosa Fames

Once again I have the excellent Dr. Gilleland to thank for drawing my attention to a lovely passage of Latin to savour (and dissect!): a Martial poem in which he revisits the often tawdry Roman theme of nostalgia for a rural birthplace.

The longing for a simple country life which so many Roman authors evince often comes across as hypocritical, and Horace of course poked fun at such dreamy pining in his well-known Alfius poem. But it does provide scope for some fine imagery, and Martial rises above his usual glib standards when comparing his beloved Bilbilis to imperial Rome.

illa placet tellus in qua res parva beatum
me facit et tenues luxuriantur opes:
pascitur hic, ibi pascit ager; tepet igne maligno
hic focus, ingenti lumine lucet ibi;
hic pretiosa fames conturbatorque macellus,
mensa ibi divitiis ruris operta sui;
quattuor hic aestate togae pluresve teruntur,
autumnis ibi me quattuor una tegit.
i, cole nunc reges, quidquid non praestat amicus
cum praestare tibi possit, Avite, locus.

(Martial, 10.96, 5-14)

"I like that country, in which a small property makes me rich, and a few possessions spoil me. The land is fed here [in Rome], but there [in Bilbilis] it feeds you: here a fireplace is warm with a grudging flame, there it gleams with a grand light; here, hunger costs plenty and the market sends you broke; there, your table is filled with the wealth of its own soil. Here, in the summer four or more togas get worn out, there one is enough to cover me in four autumns. Go on then, Avitus, pay court to your patrons, when a place can provide you with whatever a "friend" doesn't provide."

Martial uses language very cleverly:

Line 5: We see the first of a number of cute juxtapositions in "parva beatum", the second word reminding one of the opening of the aforementioned Horace poem ("beatus ille...")! The idea that satisfaction with the gifts of one's own soil constitutes real "wealth" was, by this time, a commonplace in Latin literature.
6: another oxymoron: "tenues luxuriantur opes". luxuriantur goes beyond the idea of satisfaction, however (the metrically convenient sufficiunt might have been used otherwise), stating that Martial can even make a pig of himself on his hometown estate.
7: a classic example of that staple of classical poetry, chiasmus. The subtlety here lies in the use of "pascitur", which is typically used in a deponent sense, "feeds on". But with the active "pascit" mirroring it, the meaning is more likely to be a straight passive, "the land is fed" (delaying "ager" until the end of the phrase also enhances the effect, in my view). The "middle" sense of pascitur lingers, however, with the dark implication that the big city Rome "feeds on" its inhabitants. A similarly menacing note is struck by the unexpected (and emphatically-placed) "maligno" at the end of the line. Of course, this could simply mean that the fire is meagre and hard to maintain, but the sense of "ill-wishing" is also clear.
8: the rhyming "lumine lucet" is reminiscent of Ovid, and creates a sharp contrast with the previous line.
9: another nicely-chosen oxymoron to begin the line. The phrase "pretiosa fames" captures with admirable succinctness the idea that in Rome, even basic necessities are ludicrously over-priced, and that it is necessary to work tirelessly to "earn your poverty", as the saying goes. The tongue-in-cheek phrase "conturbator(que) macellus" completes the depiction, with its playful suggestion that even the local market (supermarket?) can send you bankrupt. Anyone who has lived in Sydney for any length of time will know exactly what Martial is talking about here!
11-12: a nice study in extended chiasmus and judicious word order. "quattuor...aestate" is balanced by "autumnis...quattuor", but in the first case it is four togas in one summer, in the second it is...four autumns, four years in other words, for one toga (a point which is further enhanced by the juxtaposition "quattuor una" in line 12). This element of the country/big city dichotomy, the need to wear (out) uncomfortable formal clothing in an urban setting, is also mentioned elsewhere, notably in Juvenal's third satire where he states baldly that in many parts of Italy, "nemo togam sumit nisi mortuus".
13-14: the word "reges" carries a double meaning here, as it often does when applied to the patron-client relationship. The title rex was generally given to a rich patron, but Juvenal (among others) makes use of this title to hint at the regal airs adopted by the more self-indulgent patroni. The word "cole" is similarly rich in connotation, with its quasi-religious tone perhaps mocking the assiduousness with which ambitious clientes courted their patrons. The word "amicus" is placed emphatically at the end (shades of Juvenal again!) and the sly dig at the patrons' generosity (or lack thereof) is compared to the "generosity" of the country soil in the next line, with the key word "locus", again, delayed until the end.

Personally I would love to move to the country (as would my wife, who was raised on a farm), but there aren't many jobs for Latin teachers in the bush. That's my excuse, anyway.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Vitai Claustra

One of the abiding mysteries of Latin literature concerns the conclusion to Lucretius's De Rerum Natura. A work with an avowedly positive message, expounding a philosophy which purports to free mortals from the harrowing fear of death, ends with a relentlessly grim and depressing description of the plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Why should the poet have chosen to finish on such an unpleasant note?

Perhaps to remind his readers that death was, after all, inevitable. Perhaps to give a particularly confronting depiction of Epicurean (or Democritean) physics in action, as it were. Or perhaps - and I incline to this view - the work was unrevised at the time of the poet's death, and the passage was not intended to round off the De Rerum Natura at all. A similar theory has often been advanced to explain the jarring, paradoxical conclusion to Virgil's Aeneid.

Whatever the reason for the placement of the passage dealing with the Athenian epidemic, the poetry is compelling. Particularly notable is the following excerpt, describing the onset of the disease which gripped the city. Although the details are (naturally enough) taken straight from Thucydides, the Latin verse rivals the Greek prose in descriptive power:

principio caput incensum fervore gerebant
et duplicis oculos suffusa luce rubentes.
sudabant etiam fauces intrinsecus atrae
sanguine et ulceribus vocis via saepta coibat
atque animi interpres manabat lingua cruore
debilitata malis, motu gravis, aspera tactu.
inde ubi per fauces pectus complerat et ipsum
morbida vis in cor maestum confluxerat aegris,
omnia tum vero vitai claustra lababant.

(Lucretius, De Rerum Natura VI, 1145-1153)

"At first, they found their heads burning with fever, and both their eyes blazing red with light coming from below. Even their throats, black within, were sweating blood, and the path of their voices was blocked up and squashed together with ulcers, and the mind's translator, the tongue, was worn down by the pains and was dripping blood, heavy to move and chafing to the touch. Then, when it [the disease] had filled their chest through the throat and the sickening force had flowed into the sad hearts of the sufferers, then in fact all the bolts of life began to shake."

The talking points:

Line 1145: "gerebant" is an interesting word choice. The extra sense of "carrying" their heads is very appropriate here, given the impression of weight one gets when brimful with fever.
1146: the superbly effective assonance of the "u" sound in this line underlines the theme of pain, and the cleverly-chosen word "suffusa" suggests the reddening of the eyes due to the blood surging (fundo) up from underneath (sub-), a sinister and disturbing image.
1147-8: the personification of the parts of the body begins, with "sudabant" in emphatic position applied to the throat, followed by another important emphatic placement in the next line: "sanguine", bringing before our eyes the grim symptom of blood-coughing. An interesting point at the end of the line: "via saepta" is a phrase that would have been familiar in a different context, referring to an enclosed or protected street. Its application here to the vocal cords is original and striking.
1149-50: more personification with "animi interpres", a pleasing description of the tongue which was subsequently used elsewhere. Line 1150 is a masterpiece of extended chiasmus, with "debilitata" adding to the personification and the prevalence of "a" and "r" sounds creating an atmosphere of harshness and dryness, which fits the subject matter perfectly.
1152: the adjective-noun combination "morbida vis" is both haunting, given the additional meaning of "violence" which often accompanies vis, and deeply Epicurean in outlook. Even in small matters, Lucretius was true to his philosophical tenets. And the personification isn't finished! The "cor", which could presumably mean either "heart" or "head" here, is "maestum" - this is the pathetic fallacy put to excellent use.
1153: the passage ends with more "painful" assonance, and a memorable phrase in "vitai claustra" (for those unfamiliar with Lucretian Latin, vitai is an archaic 1st declension genitive singular form which he uses frequently). The Epicurean view of an atomic structure of both body and soul is nicely encapsulated here, with the engines of life depicted as the interlocking bolts of a complex wooden structure. And the word "lababant", which would often be used in reference to (for instance) a jerry-built block of flats, creates another memorable image of the web of atoms holding life together rocking and threatening to collapse.

Even a Stoic would have found plenty to savour in that disturbing passage...