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Archive for October, 2009

I love seeing how the Classics were received by later generations, so I thought I would post one of my favourite examples of such reception- the poem ‘Menelaus and Helen’ by the talented English poet Rupert Brooke.

Menelaus and Helen

I

Hot through Troy’s ruin Menelaus broke

To Priam’s palace, sword in hand, to sate

On that adulterous whore a ten year’s hate

And a king’s honour. Through red death, and smoke,

And cries, and then by quieter ways he strode,

Till the still innermost chamber fronted him.

He swung his sword, and crashed into the dim

Luxurious bower, flaming like a god.

 

High sat white Helen, lovely and serene.

He had not remembered that she was so fair,

And that her neck curved down in such a way,

And he felt tired. He flung the sword away,

And kissed her feet, and knelt before her there,

The perfect Knight before the perfect Queen.

 

II

So far the poet. How should he behold

That journey home, the long connubial years?

He does not tell you how white Helen bears

Child on legitimate child, becomes a scold,

Haggard with virtue. Menelaus bold

Waxed garrulous, and sacked a hundred Troys

‘Twixt noon and supper. And her golden voice

Got shrill as he grew deafer. And both were old.

 

Oft he wonders why on earth he went

Troyward, or why poor Paris ever came.

Oft she weeps, gummy-eyed and impotent,

Her dry shanks twitch at Paris’ mumbled name.

So Menelaus nagged; and Helen cried;

And Paris slept on by Scamander side.

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I was on a trip with a very dear fellow Classicist friend of mine to some Classical land a while back, and I was complaining about some aspect of the care given to some ancient structure and she said “Yes, well, you can’t hang on to everything forever.”

Blasphemy! Burn the witch! I was astounded. This, from the mouth of a Classicist! Classicists complain a lot about how such-and-such a monument is crumbling into the ground, or about how such-and-such an artifact is being neglected, blah blah blah (“How dare they leave this column base out in the rain! It might be important! Here give it to me…”). Ask me to whinge about Pompeii, and you’d better have a comfy chair and a few hours. Same with texts- we wring our hands at the thought of all those manuscripts carelessly neglected and denied to posterity. Discussions about ancient libraries usually end in long sighs and wistful staring into space.

This isn’t just a Classicist thing. I found this article on the BBC this morning, listing monuments ancient and modern which are “under threat” of slow, ignored destruction by time or human hands. Clearly society as a whole shares these concerns (yet then acts like we’re weird to be so interested in them).

Humanity in general seems fixated on not losing anything, at least not completely. Because if something isn’t lost completely, it somehow makes it okay that the majority have vanished. Think about the story of Noah’s Ark- it is somehow “okay” with us that thousands of animals suffered and died in the flood, as long as enough remained alive to continue the species. Meat-eaters use arguments against vegetarianism which use the possible extinction of consumable animals as a justification for continuing to breed them for meat. We get anxious about endangered animals, shrinking forests, dying languages, and think that as long as at least some remain, then it will somehow be okay that everything else has gone (particularly if it was our fault that it vanished in the first place). We can’t let go.

Of course, I’m generalizing. But lots of houses are saved every year in Britain by the National Trust- for what? Why do we care if little Japanese wooden houses are replaced by big metal ones? Or if 17th-Century British farming practices are replaced by new ones? Or if Seville won’t look quite the same again? Isn’t this the way of the world? We replace old things with new (and often better) things and that is how it has always happened. Why should we stop now?

And yet I feel wrong even writing that. There is something about age which makes something holy, and something about extinction which makes us cringe, but what is it?

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Sometimes I wind up reading strange things, and sometimes those things are about Romans. This is one such case. I bring you… EMPEROR OF THE VARIABLE PERIOD OF TIME AWARD, wherein I bring you one of my favourite emperors and explain what it was which made them so good/bad/bonkers (Hint: most recipients of the award will be in the latter two categories).

The first recipient of my “prestigious” award is the Emperor Elagabalus.

Elagabalus, our favourite rose-utilising murderer.

Elagabalus, our favourite rose-utilising murderer.

That’s a strange name, you may be thinking. Well, yes it is. He was born with the sensible name Marcus, but changed his name to Elagabalus when he was made the priest of the eponymous Persian sun god aged 14. Once he made it to the throne aged 15, he proceeded to surprise no one who knows a 15-year-old by ruining everything. At one banquet, he drowned his guests in rose petals for no obvious reason. He never wore a garment more than once, and allegedly would wear rings only once, then throw them away. According to the Historia Augusta, he used to get his friends so drunk that they passed out, then shut them up in a room and send his tame, but very much alive, lions and bears in to wake them in the morning.

His religious fanaticism resulted in his essentially equating himself with the god- on his coins sometimes he has a strange little horn protruding from his forehead. Elagabalus CoinHe caused scandal in Rome by marrying a Vestal Virgin (women who, in case you hadn’t guessed, were really supposed to stay virgins) named Aquilia Severa. He then made it all better by having a parallel marriage ceremony where the god Elagabalus married the goddess Vesta. The marriage between both couples apparently didn’t last, and Elagabalus married off his god to another goddess, Venus, when it suited him.

According to Dio, Elagabalus was so extraordinarily effeminate that not only did he wear garments entirely of silk but actually consulted physicians about making him biologically female (please note that I am not trying to deprecate the LGBT community, but Dio certainly was). He was told by an oracle that he would die violently, so he had some velvet nooses, gold swords and jewelled bottles of poison on standby at all times. Too bad he was murdered with his mother and both their bodies were dragged to the Tiber via the Roman sewer system. I wonder why…

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