Above: Prow of a Roman two-banked war ship, ca. 50 A.D. From a relief found in the Temple of Fortune at Praeneste, now in the Vatican. Note the leather bags around the ports through which the oars stick from the hull; these keep water from getting in around the oars, but do not constrict their movement. (Illustration from Cecil Torr, Ancient Ships, , 1895.)
"I have a dream" still resonates
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose holiday we celebrate the third Monday of every year (in 2018 on his actual birthday, January 15), gave his "I have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The repeated refrain came in an extemporized coda to a prepared speech, in which he was urged on by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who called out to him from the crowd, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" Inspired, he spoke of the American dream, and of his own dream that one day America would "live up to its creed, that 'We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.'"
Together with his other great speech, "I've been to the mountaintop ... and I've seen the Promised Land," delivered on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination, King's "Dream" speech takes its place among the world's great inspirational orations.
Petronius as an observer of the Roman scene
Our Quotation of the Month is a short poem concerning dreams, and the role each individual plays in deciding what his or her dreams will be. It is by a rather unlikely writer, the Roman Petronius Arbiter (27 A.D.-66 A.D.), whose surname doubtless came from his position at Nero's court as arbiter elegantiae or "judge of elegance." While he seems to have been an able administrator in his position as governor of Bithynia and as consul, he was (as described by Tacitus) more famous for his love of idleness and extravagance. He is best known today as the probable author of the Satyricon, a novel that we have in incomplete form, which satirizes Roman life as he must have known it all too well. Its most famous passage is the Cena Trimalchionis, "Trimalchio's Dinner," an outrageous depiction of over-the-top excess.
Petronius made enemies at court, and accused, whether justly or unjustly, of conspiracy against the emperor, was arrested. Deciding to go out on his own terms, he committed suicide, slitting his wrists, then playfully bandaging them up again, while conversing with his friends, then finally consigning himself to death.
Petronius on our own role in choosing our dreams
In addition to the gross Satyricon, Petronius also wrote poems on a variety of subjects, many in a contemplative mood. One of these is on dreams. Dreams come not from the gods or from the sky, but from ourselves. Whatever concerns us by day, is fulfilled — or not — by night. The warrior sees himself successful in battle, the lawyer trembles as he sees the judge. A woman writes to her lover, and a dog chases rabbits in his sleep. A sailor may save his capsized ship — or he may cling to it as he drowns. It is up to him.
The poem ends with the thought that "for the miserable, the wounds last all night long." This ending may seem a bit downbeat, but the message is clear, that we are ultimately the controllers of our own dreams.
The Latin text is that found in the Loeb edition, the work of Professor Buecheler. It also appears in Helen Waddell's Mediaeval Latin Lyrics (1930). Petronius did not belong to the mediaeval period in terms of chronology, but it was Waddell's point that the mediaeval spirit in poetry, a romantic quality, began much earlier. In her opinion, "Petronius is closer to the first Italian sonnet writers than he is to Horace."
Below, in Latin and English, is Petronius' poem on dreams. The translation, as usual, is my own.
Bust of Selene on a sarcophagus, from Tomb D in Via Belluzzo, Rome, now at the Baths of Diocletian. Goddess of the Moon, who lights up the night, she wears a crescent on her head and carries a torch. The concerns of the day are rehashed at night. (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006), from Wikimedia.)
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