This book is full of insights. I had never before appreciated that the Roman 'religion' was in essence a variety of pantheons, including the Olympic, grafted on to primitive animistic shadowy and vague powers such as Mater Matuta, Janus, Concordia, Castor, Fortuna etc; that “The ancestors of the Romans were, as Indo-Europeans. rather odd: they seem to have brought with them into Italy no gods and no mythology.” (p 80) and one of the traditional invocations began “whether you be god or goddess” (p 63) Even as late as "Cato's time (the first half of the second century) Mars could still be purely a spirit of the wilderness, though he had also, and for a long time, assumed the armour and the personality of Ares.” (p 65)
Nor had I appreciated that the chronology of Roman history is mainly invented, even regarding the date of the founding of the city. “The date that we view as traditional, 753 BC, was not established and accepted until 47 BC, on the authority of Varro, the greatest antiquarian scholar of his time, but it was entirely his invention.” He calculated that the Republic began in 509 BC and there were seven kings with an average reign of, say, 35 years each. (p 78) This is almost as good as Archbishop Usher's calculation of the date of creation.
Other insights included:
- “Virgil’s poem is a complete inversion of Homer.” (p 1)
- “Poetic meaning cannot be caught in the net of analysis, typified, catalogued, and stored away systemically in its proper drawer of a critical cabinet. The Aeneid does have meaning, but it has no answers.” (p 3)
- “Homeric narrative ... is strikingly different from the sophisticated literary narrative of secondary epic, in this respect: it is realistic, with the realism demanded by children listening to a fairytale. Every detail must be precise and logical.” (p 7) And just the tiny fraction of Homer quoted made me realise the power of the narrative.
- “The mundane experience of ordinary people living their everyday lives can become of literary interest only when given a significance that removes the experience from the everyday, that makes it mean something more.” (p 11)
- “The hero must do great deeds and must excel, but if he is to move us and have meaning, he must also fail, because failure is human, and the most human failing is death.” (p 12)
- “The difference between a Homeric hero at a time of crisis and Aeneas is simply this, that in Homer the hero then acts, decisively and without further hesitation, whereas for Aeneas there is no course of action possible, no way to resolve the conflict.” (p 13)
- “Divine action ... is human action in a pure state, a purity of absolute pettiness, of ambition and greed, of spite and pride; but pure also in that it need have no regard for its consequences” because the gods are immortal.” (p 72)
I even understood (most of) the discussion about the Latin hexameter and the reason for stresses and caesuras.
Other great moments:
- “What is most obvious often receives the least attention” (p 1)
- “Apollonius’ Jason and Medea are subject to passions and faults all too human. Jason appears often as an incompetent, a bumbler, and a cad, and Medea is both the witch of towering passion and supernatural powers ... and also a naive girl experiencing love for the first time.” (p 6)
- “The traditional hero stands half-way between the gods and men.” (p 11)
- “Ignorance is fundamental to the human condition.” (p 76)
- “Whereas we walk down the road of life looking into the future as we go, the ancients sat in a railroad car facing to the rear, seeing only where they have passed; to see where they were going, they had to look back over their shoulders. This, in fact, is a far more realistic conception of the future than ours.” (p 106)
What a wonderful book. My mate Fred is good at picking books for me. Others he has selected which I recommend are:
- The Feather Thief, a true crime story about a theft from a museum
- A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
- Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
- The Song of Achilles a wonderful novel by Madeline Miller
- Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner; a memoir of a man who grew up in Germany during hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis
August 2018; 152 pages