Lavinia – rescued from near oblivion

Another in the series of – “isn’t it time we looked at the story from someone else’s standpoint”. I haven’t read “Lavinia”  and probably won’t,  but any book which draws from someone who has the comment “If you haven’t read The Aeneid, you will want to after this”,  must be worthy of consideration.

Lavinia  B y Ursula le Guin

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

paperback; 288 pp.;

Virgil opens his epic of the foundation of Rome by invoking the muse to sing “of arms and the man.” The Aeneid gives scant attention to women, apart from Carthage’s queen Dido, wracked with love for the Trojan exile Aeneas, and the goddess Juno, forever scheming to thwart his plans to establish a new Troy in Latin lands. Notably neglected is the Latin princess he does battle for, foremother to the Roman rulers. Now, rescued from near-oblivion by Ursula le Guin, Lavinia gives her side of the story. Virgil got her all wrong, Lavinia tells us. It is she, as much as Aeneas, who determines the fate of her homeland. She is also a natural narrator, attuned to the old and alive to the new. Reviewing the book in The Daily Telegraph, John Garth writes: “Le Guin, a doyen of fantasy who has steeped herself in myth and history, is adept at the telling detail. Aeneas emerges a steely man of honour, troubled by his own battlefield excesses against his Latin rival Turnus … Celebrating literature’s power to outlive and outgrow its creators, this novel is neither a complaint against an old dead white male nor a slavish imitation of his work. If you haven’t read The Aeneid, you will want to after this. If you already know your Virgil, you may find Le Guin sending you back for a fresh look. Her achievement is to complement the original epic so distinctively, as if in a dialogue or dance with the poet who inspired her.”

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The Revolt That Ravaged An Empire

Washington Post

Review by Tom Holland
Sunday, April 5, 2009; Page B06

THE SPARTACUS WAR

By Barry Strauss

Simon & Schuster. 264 pp. $26

One of the frustrations of studying the last, agonized century of the Roman Republic is that our sources invariably derive from the ruling elite. No snob like a senatorial snob: To search the writings of authors such as Cicero or Sallust for details of how the lower classes lived is like panning for gold. Most despised of all — and most ignored, of course — were the slaves. It was certainly no concern of a Roman aristocrat to examine the lives of those millions of unfortunates upon whose bent backs the entire glittering edifice of classical civilization had been raised. Yet one of those same unfortunates remains to this day a household name whose fame outshines that of many a senatorial high-flyer. After all, it was not Pompey, nor Cicero, nor even Julius Caesar who ended up being played on the big screen by Kirk Douglas, but the lowest of the Roman low: a gladiator.

What makes this all the more extraordinary is that Spartacus himself, the slave who defied an empire, left no testimony of his own. The few, fragmentary accounts of his life that do survive were composed by authors in whom the very thought of a slave rebellion inspired horror and contempt. From them we know the basic details of Spartacus’s career: how he was brought from Thrace to fight in an arena in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius; how he and about 70 other gladiators, armed only with kitchen utensils, broke out of their barracks; how for two years, from 73 to 71 B.C., his growing band of runaway slaves ravaged Italy; how at one point he led more than 100,000 men. And yet, despite the terror he inspired, there was a quality to Spartacus that even the Romans seem sneakingly to have admired. Whether it was overpowering his guards or putting consuls to flight or killing his horse to deprive himself of any means of flight when he finally faced defeat, he lived “fortissime” — as a man of exceptional courage.

The very features that so appealed to Hollywood, however, make Spartacus a potentially treacherous subject for any classicist. Historians, no matter how seduced by the drama of his revolt, are more circumscribed than their script-writing counterparts by the moth-eaten character of our sources. The balance between accessibility and scholarship, imagination and responsibility, is not always an easy one to strike. In his previous book on the Trojan war, Barry Strauss, a professor of classics at Cornell, seemed so desperate not to bore readers that he occasionally floated free of scholarly moorings. “The Spartacus War,” however, has all the excitement of a thriller but none of the poetic license. Whether it is the remains of a trench system in the toe of Italy or an abandoned silver ladle or the mention of one of Spartacus’s guides in “one line in a lost history book,” Strauss makes every last scrap of information count. This is particularly the case when it comes to descriptions of fighting. The account of what it meant to be a gladiator, of the tactics required to be victorious and of the agony of defeat is particularly adrenaline-fueled. Spartacus’s death — not on a cross, as in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 movie, but charging the Roman general who led the campaign against him — comes as a worthy climax to an epic that never once relaxes its tension.
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As to the broader question of what Spartacus was fighting for, whether a principled love of freedom or a bandit’s love of plunder, Strauss hedges his bets. The goals of the rebellion, he concludes, were both noble and coarsely pragmatic: “honor, prowess, vengeance, loot, and even the favor of the gods.” If so, then one of the reasons why Spartacus endured so long in the memories of the Romans must surely have been that he reminded them of themselves.

Certainly, as Strauss points out, it was never a part of the rebels’ manifesto to abolish slavery itself. What they objected to was not the institution, but their own entrapment within it. Marauding up and down Italy, they lived precisely as their former masters did: off the labor and produce of others. That notwithstanding, Spartacus does appear to have held some authentically exceptional principles. Uniquely among the leaders of slave revolts in the ancient world, he seems — if we can trust our sources — to have put his faith in something like an ideal of equality. For that reason alone, it might be argued, he more than merits this fine biography. As another, if less well historically attested, gladiator put it: “Brothers, what we do in life, echoes in eternity.”

Tom Holland is the author of “Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic.” His new book, “The Forge of Christendom,” will be published in May

OUP booksale and new titles

Oxford University Press are advertising a book sale ending 3rd March.

You can pick up Oakley’s commentary on Livy books VI-X for £40 rather than £160, so if you happen to be wanting that, it’s a bargain. There’s also Lyne: Collected papers on Latin Poetry for £17.75 down from £71. Katherine Radice welcomed this one when new:

‘a must-buy book for any school library. Lyne writes with remarkable panache and with the rare ability to get right to the core of a work’ – Katharine Radice, The Journal of Classics Teaching

New books, or new in paperback, include a selection of essays on the Odyssey, edited Lillian E Doherty, £29.99 paperback.

There are more Classical translations, Aeschylus’ other four plays, Euripides’ Trojan Women, and Cicero political speeches.

Review of The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham

The Telegraph

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, wrote Edward Gibbon in the conclusion to his historical masterpiece, was “the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in the history of mankind”. Schoolchildren today know far less about the Romans and their successors than they used to, yet the empire still casts a long shadow. When we fret about barbarians at the gates, or argue about the hubris of the Pax Americana, we are following in the footsteps not only of Gibbon, but of the historical characters who inhabited his work: Alaric leading the Goths through the pillaged streets of Rome; Justinian gazing for the first time on the dome of Hagia Sophia; Mohammed bringing the new message of Islam to the warriors of Arabia; Charlemagne being crowned emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800.

For grandiloquent rhetoric, savage wit and narrative drama there is still nobody to touch Gibbon. But the Oxford professor Chris Wickham’s new history of the last years of Rome and the rise of its successors, spanning an impressive six centuries of European history, is a worthy competitor. As a volume in the same series as Tim Blanning’s acclaimed history of Europe in the age of Louis XIV and Mozart, it has a lot to live up to (as if Gibbon’s shadow were not enough). But it is a tribute to Wickham’s awe-inspiring command of his sources, his stunning narrative sweep and his encyclopedic knowledge that it succeeds so masterfully.

The new year may be only a month old, but it is hard to believe that it will produce many more enduring and impressive history books than this.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between this book and Gibbon’s masterpiece is that Wickham almost immediately dismisses the idea of decline and fall. The late Roman world was, as he shows, a stable and sophisticated society, bound together by patronage, commerce and, above all, taxation, its citizens often living in bustling cities or country estates. But it did not suddenly fall apart when the Goths and Vandals showed up. Indeed, the people that we still call “barbarians” often adopted Roman models, whether of religion, coinage or language, and there was little sense of the end of an era. In North Africa, Wickham writes, the Vandals even “thought they were being very Roman”.

The end of the Western empire was a story of evolution, not overnight collapse – and the deposition of the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 was one of history’s greatest non-events.

In the eastern Mediterranean, in any case, Roman rule continued for centuries. Gibbon had little time for the East Roman empire (which we call Byzantine, although nobody called it that at the time), but Wickham reminds us that for centuries it remained the most sophisticated and powerful state in the Eurasian world. He is a pithy and compelling guide through the narrative complexities of Constantinople politics, from the ruthless Justinian II, the emperor with the golden nose, to the grim Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, but he is happiest when exploring the subterranean shifts of social and economic history, showing how state power waxed and waned, how people made and spent their money, and how they worshipped and thought. Indeed, for anybody who has seen and admired the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy, this book is the ideal companion.

But one of Wickham’s great strengths is his vast geographical and comparative range, so that we get a sense not just of one society, but of half a dozen or more. The only state that really compared with the Byzantine Empire for power and complexity was the gigantic Abbasid caliphate ruled from Baghdad, for a while the greatest city in the world. Unlike so many lazy post-September 11, 2001 popular histories, this book gives us little sense of a clash of civilisations; instead, Wickham shows how both empires were the heirs of Rome, and how they confronted strikingly similar economic and ideological dilemmas. And he is no less insightful when explaining the politics of the Merovingians, the “long-haired kings” of the Franks, with their love of feasting and fighting – or of the Anglo-Saxons, the Lombards, the Carolingians, and a host of other fascinating peoples.

Although it is the grand sweep that really marks this book, Wickham has a sharp eye for a revealing anecdote, illuminating even the murkiest corners of the so-called Dark Ages. I loved, for example, the Irish king’s timetable, which dictated that Sunday was for drinking ale, Monday for judgment, Tuesday for board games, Wednesday for hunting, Thursday for sex, and so on.

Almost every page is full of arresting details and insights; even specialists will learn a lot. No review, in fact, can really do this book justice: it is a superlative work of historical scholarship.

Cambridge Companion to Lucretius and a translation


Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, editors
THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO LUCRETIUS
365pp. Cambridge University Press. Paperback, £18.99.
978 0 521 61266 1

Lucretius
THE NATURE OF THINGS
Translated by A. E. Stallings; introduction by Richard Jenkyns
265 pp. Penguin Books. Paperback, £9.99.
978 0 140 44796 5

On the wall of a house at Pompeii are scratched the words “suabe mari magno .
. .” (“It is sweet on the great sea . . .”). These are the first words of
the second book of Lucretius’ Epicurean poem De rerum natura (On the Nature
of Things), and the sentence ends, “. . . to watch from the shore other
people drowning”. The house in question in question overlooks the Bay of
Naples, whose villas and libraries offered Lucretius’ contemporaries a
comfortable daily view of the hazards of seafaring and where Epicureanism,
the Greek panacea that blended soul-soothing with materialist physics,
enjoyed a brief resurgence in the first century bc. Lucretius was no early
promoter of Schadenfreude. His serene spectator enjoyed a higher kind of
pleasure: remoteness from his own suffering.

Though Lucretius revived many of Epicurus’ life-saving mantras – steer clear
of stress, channel your desires safely, don’t be afraid of death, the gods
are not vindictive – this evangelist probably never aspired to convert his
fellow Romans en masse. His was a philosophy of detachment in every sense,
espoused by drop-outs, aesthetes, atheists, scientists and Democritean
observers through the ages: rational scepticism combined with physical
aloofness. (Thomas Gray’s “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife” is a
Lucretian adaptation.)

Epicurean securitas (in Greek, ataraxia), the absence of care, has been the
motto of many a rural or suburban retreat, from Montaigne’s tower to
Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci. Musing in secluded gardens, shunning the
rat race and the hurly-burly, Epicureans have always been an enlightened
minority. But there is nothing enervated about Lucretius’ high-temperature
assault on his Roman audience. Colours, smells and textures rise off his
pages, and metaphors of tracking, pioneering, desire and conquest turn what
could have been an arid treatise into the most adventurous poem in Latin,
one that claims simply to be “about everything”, with its readers not just
vicarious epic heroes, playing out their roles in history, but kings of
infinite space, exposed to strange new perspectives on the knowable world.

Few of his fellow citizens can have been ready for this kind of dizzying
psychic liberation. To Romans like Lucretius’ addressee, Gaius Memmius,
Epicureanism offered an alternative as terrifying as it was appealing:
complete withdrawal from public duty and civil violence, justified as the
contemplation of universal truths and freedom from the shackles of
superstition. A tough nut to crack (he personally demolished Epicurus’ house
in Athens), Memmius was only an extreme representative of a community
resistant to most forms of Greek philosophy. Any cult that urged its
followers to abandon their careers, as well as take on board the materiality
of the body and the mortality of the soul, was hard to square with the
raison d’être of aristocratic existence, rooted as that was in worldly
achievement and the continuation of great houses. Even Cicero, who did so
much to acclimatize reluctant Romans to Greek intellectual developments,
mocked the Epicureans as cranks and made out that their prophetic vision of
a world composed of randomly moving atoms (atomorum turba) bore a worrying
resemblance to the anarchic crowds currently threatening the Roman state.

Lucretius chose verse – more heightened, fluid and resounding than prose – to
convey his missionary message. His master Epicurus, like Plato before him,
distrusted poetry as a vehicle for truth-telling, but this flew in the face
of an ancient tradition that verse bestowed authority, dignity and above all
memorability. If the Romans had had a Bible, it would have been a metrical
one. Yet Lucretius’ well-known image of doctors fooling children into
drinking bitter medicine (hard philosophy) by lacing the cup with honey
(poetry) is probably already a polemic against a “two cultures”-style split
between the proper discourse of science and the seductive associations of
poetry. In his view, discovering the world at one’s lips or fingertips is
the first step to understanding it. The poem opens with a shock – Mars
panting in Venus’ lap – to hook readers with tangible voluptas (pleasure)
before they progress to the more abstract variety.

One of the many paradoxes noted by the editors of the magnificent new
Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, is
that De rerum natura is a “manifesto of modernity in the sonorous voice of
an Old Testament prophet”. This was a calculated choice. And Lucretius’
apology for the shortcomings of Latin as a scientific language must be
disingenuous when his neologisms are not so much technical terms as precise
but luscious descriptive words: largifluos, levisomnus, anguimanus,
diffusilis, ramosus, versatilis, glomeramen, insatiabiliter. Verse offered
him a different kind of clarity. Many of its characteristics – analogy,
metaphor, mnemonic, puns and repetition – are, after all, traditional
weapons in the teacher’s arsenal, even the modern science teacher’s.
According to Virgil, Memmius’ family descended from Aeneas’ companion
Mnestheus, whose name derives from the Greek word for “memory”, which may
explain why Lucretius recycles his best passages wholesale for
reinforcement.

Memmius is taken by the hand, like a child in the dark, and prodded, drilled
and teased into a new way of looking at the world, one that builds
connections between perceptible phenomena and imperceptible ones, the
infinitesimally small and the infinitely large. Without the telescope or the
microscope at his disposal, Lucretius conjures up dancing atoms out of dust
mites and the boundless depth of the earth from skies reflected in a puddle.
By rejecting transliterated Greek terms like atomi in favour of metaphors
like semina (seeds) and genitalia corpora (generative bodies), he craftily
presumes the material nature of the smallest units of life in advance of
further proof. And the exaggerated trickle of word into word in his honeyed
verse is the cleverest means of suggesting organic inter-relations in the
physical world, most famously through fortuitous phonetic connections: the
link between lignum (wood) and ignis (fire) “proves” the metamorphosis of
timber into ashes; that between umor (semen) and amor (love) reduces sex to
an exchange of bodily fluids.

Lucretius looks at the world with a poet’s eye, then, as well as a
rationalist’s, and here lie other paradoxical aspects of his writing. He
penetrates to deep universal laws but is also the supreme Roman poet of
surfaces: sheen, moisture, echoes, brambles, fur, worn bronze, twitching
nostrils and steaming breath. He demythologizes nature, yet the most
memorable features of the poem are not the logical explanations (with their
prosaic conjunctions like “moreover” and “in conclusion, then”), but wispy
traces of the discarded world of illusion – tissues, films, chimeras – or,
alternatively, grandiose vistas onto the sublime. Lucretius sharpens our
eyes not just to observe daily miracles, but also to prepare us to confront
the unconfrontable: the moral abyss opened up in Epicurus’ city, Athens, by
universal plague; the degeneration of civilized mankind after its first
grunting, self-interested stabs at a social contract; and the unmanageable
terror of “void”, which means both the vacant parts of the physical universe
and the gaping hole opened up by death.

Lucretius’ Epicurus, according to James I. Porter in the Companion, is a
precursor of those Nietzschean sublime heroes who push back the boundaries
of the world and teeter on the brink of eternal truth or are lost in
contemplation of the emptiness at the heart of things. However, as E. J.
Kenney points out, the same Lucretius debunks the idea of the divinely sent
thunderbolt as a glorified balloon pop, showering its fearful rumblings
(perterricrepo sonitu) with a “douche of logical cold water”. An
unforgettable image of lovers yearning, straining and spilling out their
futile passions follows relentless satire on lisping pet names for their
sweethearts. The poem on “all things” is also a compendium of all stylistic
moods and registers, with an almost organic identity of its own: a shifting
amoeba living out its predicted cycles of growth, decay and rebirth. Where
does the abrupt and gloomy ending among the Athenian plague victims leave
us? Exposed, like trained Epicureans, to the finality of material things or
hopeful of yet another revival – honeybees rising from rotting corpses?

Where the Companion really takes off is in its exploration of Lucretius’
afterlife, in antiquity and beyond. A crumbling papyrus from Herculaneum
allows Dirk Obbink to meditate eloquently on our fragmented understanding of
Lucretius’ neo-Epicurean context. Yasmin Haskell reads him as the muse for
Girolamo Fracastoro’s Renaissance didactic poem on syphilis; Valentina
Prosperi, following Panofsky, sees him behind Piero di Cosimo’s haunting
“Forest Fire”. Lucretius seems to have been one of the less palatable Roman
writers, prompting, as Hardie observes, his own very “Lucretian” response:
attraction mixed with repulsion. His successors have tended to split between
uncovering “Anti-Lucretian” (that is, irrational) elements embedded in the
poem and adopting his distinctive voice to reject bleaker aspects of his
philosophy, especially the perceived atheism. The politically active have
enlisted him as a scourge of bigotry and ambition, but scolded and envied
him for opting out. He was a hero of the Enlightenment, especially when the
Lisbon earthquake of 1755 shook faith in providence and sent the philosophes
away to cultivate Epicurean gardens. Frederick the Great, as Reid Barbour
explains, carried Lucretius into imperial battles as a fortifying breviary,
but in repose humbly contemplated animal life as “an accident of nature,
like the dust thrown up by wheels”. Tennyson’s superb, mad “Lucretius”
(1869) transforms Jerome’s apocryphal tale of the lovesick, suicidal poet
into a Victorian fantasy about a soul torn between rationality and the
lingering pull of religion and sexual neurosis.

Scientists have also been ambivalent. James Thomson portrayed Newton as an
Epicurean pioneer: “He, first of men, with awful wing, pursued / The comet
through the long elliptic curve, / As round innumerous worlds he wound his
way”. It was a piquant moment in the history of Lucretian reception when
Einstein in 1924 wrote the preface to a German translation of De rerum
natura. But though Nobel laureates have paid lip service to the Epicureans’
intuitions in their acceptance speeches, modern atomism, with its
experimental basis, has left the ancient variety far behind. The discovery
of subatomic particles did prompt a Lucretian kind of aporia in Wassily
Kandinsky: “The collapse of the atomic model was equivalent, in my soul, to
the collapse of the whole world”. And twenty-first century Lucretius? Both
psychotherapist and depressive? Patron of recycling, organ transplants,
killer microbes and social disintegration?

How to make Lucretius live on and preserve Dryden’s “perpetual torrent” of
poetry? Penguin has replaced its old prose translation with the rhyming
verse of A. E. Stallings. The flow is consistent, an impressive feat in
itself. I looked at her treatment of a favourite passage from Book One,
where Lucretius illustrates the invisible evaporation of water particles
with an image of laundry left out to dry. In the Latin, corresponding words
– uvescunt (moisten), serescunt (dry), suspensae (hung), dispansae (spread),
in litore (on the shore), in sole (in the sun) – are pinned on either side
of eaedem (the same clothes): the transformation leaves the original altered
but intact. Stallings matches this with symmetrical alliteration: “Moreover,
clothing hung out by a breaker-beaten shore / Grows damp, but if you spread
it in the sun, it dries once more”. But what comes outis lost in the wash is
Lucretian intensitydiluted. Gone are the archaisms and the radiance that
beams off the page; in phrases like “distribute [rhyming with “root”] /
Nutrients”, the biblical strangeness goes too. This is Lucretius made
accessible, but the poet’s paradoxical defamiliarizing of the world and his
attempts at the places where words fail – in short, the Lucretian sublime –
have vanished. Contrast this with Tennyson’s voyager hurtling through space:

A void was made in Nature; all her bonds
Crack’d; and I saw the flaring atom-streams
And torrents of her myriad universe,
Ruining along the illimitable inane,
Fly on and crashto clash together again, and make
Another and another frame of things
For ever.

Far from being serene, Lucretius’ language is positively effortful in the face
of contingency and unknowability. His poem should sound like a frail but
tenacious survivor, composed of what Italo Calvino called the “impalpable,
powder-fine dust of words”.

Emily Gowers teaches Classics at St John’s College, Cambridge.

It’s All Greek To Me

The Guardian

Charlotte Higgins writes about her new book.

It’s a very exciting week for me: my latest book, It’s All Greek To Me, is published tomorrow, and today the Guardian has printed an extract.

The book is a product of a long love affair with the literature of
ancient Greece. Writing it was one of the most joyous and enriching
projects I have ever had the good fortune to undertake.

What underpins the book is my profound belief that the great writers of
Greece – such as Homer and Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles
and Sappho – are not worthy-but-dull, forbidding authors of dusty,
unreadable tomes. These authors have left us vivid, exciting,
provocative, often devastating, often hilarious reads. They should be
as widely enjoyed as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens – and it saddens me
that they are not.

The storytelling of Homer – whose humanity,
whose deep understanding of love and loss is utterly unmistakable – is
unmatched, for my money, in later literature. Plato’s Republic (more
often discussed than read cover-to-cover) is one of the most
terrifying, challenging and bold thought experiments ever to have been
dreamed up – and you certainly don’t need to be a professional
philosopher to be gripped by it. The dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and
Euripides still lay down a ridiculously high standard for playwrights
today – which is why directors and actors keep returning to them. Oedipus the King
opens at the National Theatre in a couple of weeks – aside from being
an almost perfect play in terms of the relentless logic of its
structure, it is also the world’s first detective story, one in which
the detective and the perpetrator, horrifyingly, turn out to be the
same person.

I was just now reading our Books site‘s excellent poem of the week,
and I was thinking about which poem of Sappho I would put in that slot,
and why. Well, I’ll finish this post with another little chunk of the
book: a few words about Sappho’s fragment two.

“… Of her wonderful poems of love and longing, many are unambiguously homoerotic;
some are wedding songs. Part of their appeal is their very fragmentary
quality: these beautiful lines and half-lines are like finely decorated
potsherds, separated for ever from their fellows – they act as a
poignant metaphor, perhaps, of the study of the ancient world itself,
the way we try to make a world from beautiful scraps and bits. In fact
there is a (part) poem of hers which was actually discovered written on
a potsherd; fragment two, as it is known:

down from the mountain top
and out of Crete,
come to me here
in your sacred precinct, to your grove
of apple trees,
and your altars
smoking with incense,

where cold water flows babbling
through the branches,
the whole place
shadowed with roses,
sleep adrift down
from silvery leaves
an enchantment

horses grazing in a meadow
abloom with spring flowers
and where the breezes blow sweetly,

here, Cypris,
delicately in golden cups
pour nectar
mixed for our festivities.

[Translation: Stanley Lombardo]

It is an invocation, a summoning of the goddess Aphrodite, named here for
Cyprus, the island off which she was born from the foam of the sea.
It’s astonishingly powerful, this evocation of place, this apple grove
in which the love-goddess’s sanctuary lies. It’s synaesthesic, almost,
every sense is stimulated: there’s the heady scent of the incense; the
sight of the stream (in the background) with the shading apple trees in
front; the icy coldness to the touch of the water; the drowsy sound of
the breeze through the leaves; beyond, the glimpse of the horses
grazing in the flower-filled meadows. To read this poem is to be there,
lying in the deep grass of the grove, gently heading for sleep …”

Mary Beard will be pleased

Excerpts from a couple of recent reviews of ‘Pompeii’.

The Independent

Media dons such as Mary Beard are sometimes disliked by their fellow
academics, supposedly because they’re dumbing down their subjects. I
think the real reason is envy; not just of the fame and fortune, but
also because media dons have the distinction of being able to write.
Unlike those writing for the Camford Gazette of the Proceedings of the
Committee for Obscure Ancient Thought (circulation 2,000; number of
readers 37), they also have to think, “Some poor bloody reader’s
actually got to be entertained by this.”

Mary Beard is constantly entertaining, jumping from the deaths in 79AD to the deaths of the excavators 1,700 years later. The tunnels through the pumice were perilous, dingy and narrow, often only accessible by children. The skeletons found in Pompeii include those of crushed 18th and 19th century antiquarians.

The Times

Beard covers the big public issues – economy and government, gods, games – and animates them superbly by tying them to the biographies of real Pompeiians: the heart-throb gladiator Celadus, the well-connected local worthy Marcus Holconius Priscus, and the warty banker Lucius Caecilius Jucundus. She is most interested, however, in the domestic and the intimate. In the excellent chapter on painting and decorating, she doesn’t just analyse Pompeiian style, she opens up cupboards to count the paint pots and turn over the spoons and spatulas. She doesn’t only describe the grander rooms with their fantastical frescoes and deep tones of “Pompeiian red”, she explores the corridors and service quarters, revealing the ferocious zebra-stripe colour scheme “which would not have looked wholly out of place in the 1960s”.