Above: Roman soldiers (infantry and cavalry). Illustration from Caesar's Commentaries, ed. Francis W. Kelsey, 1918.
Valentine's Day in a time of isolation
In February we celebrated Valentine's Day, but because of the quarantine imposed during the pandemic, many of us were unable to be with loved ones on special occasions. We were unable to visit family and friends, either because they were in the hospital with limited or no visiting privileges, or because they live perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles away from us. And of course military families are regularly separated, often for long periods of time.
For this month's Quotation of the Month, we bring you a fictionalized letter from an ancient Roman wife to her soldier husband, serving in one of the Emperor Augustus' many foreign campaigns, written by the Roman poet Propertius.
Augustus' foreign conquests
Under the rule of the Emperor Augustus, which extended from 30 B.C. (when Antony and Cleopatra were defeated at the Battle of Actium) until his death in 14 A.D., Rome, while peaceful at home, was engaged in almost constant foreign warfare. Augustus extended Roman power by consolidating conquests in Gaul, Spain, Egypt, the Lower Danube, and the Middle East. The land of Germany, however, eluded him.
In 26 B.C. Augustus ordered the prefect of Egypt, Aelius Gallus, to invade the Sabaeans of the lower Arabian peninsula. Rome already controlled the upper part of the peninsula, ruled by the Nabataeans. The Nabataean capital was the fantastic rock-carved city of Petra, in present day Jordan. The lower part of the peninsula, known as Arabia felix ("Fortunate (or Fertile) Arabia") in present day Yemen, was a source of the sought-after spices of myrrh and frankincense. Conquest of Arabia would also give the Romans control of both sides of the entrance to the Red Sea and hence access to trade with India and the Horn of Africa. The campaign went badly, and the Roman troops suffered heavy losses, although the Sabaeans eventually entered into an uneasy relationship with the Roman Empire. It is thought that Propertius' letter to a soldier from his wife may date from this campaign.
The Roman poet Sextus Propertius (ca. 50-45 B.C. - ca. 15 B.C.) was a member of the circle of poets around Augustus and his principal advisor, the wealthy Maecenas, which also included Horace, Vergil, and Gallus. Propertius is known to us from four books in the elegiac meter, with alternating long and short lines. (Some scholars have rearranged the poems of the four-book manuscript tradition into five books, which can make the numbering hard to follow.) His most memorable poems are those addressed to a woman he calls "Cynthia." He often refers to her as a docta puella, or "learned girl," and she herself is described as writing poetry. The relationship did not go smoothly, and eventually they broke up. In his last and most poignant "Cynthia" poem (IV.7), Cynthia has died, and appears to him as a ghost, sad and disappointed, complaining that when she expired, alone and forgotten, he did not even come to her funeral. She requests a short epitaph on her tomb, easily read by the traveller, "as he runs by." Promising (or threatening?) to see the poet in the next world, she departs, "slipping from his embrace."
In his later poems, Propertius branched out more, increasingly presenting characters other than himself. In Elegy IV.11, another shade, that of Cornelia, a relative of Augustus, addresses her widowed husband, Aemilius Paullus. She encourages him to move on, and even, if he wishes, to remarry.
Propertius's poetry is marked by a sometimes complicated use of language, and by allusions to obscure Greek and Roman mythology. This is true of the poem that is our Quotation of the Month (IV.4), in which he speaks in the voice of another woman, the lonely wife of a Roman soldier, away fighting in one of Augustus' endless wars.
A lonely wife writes to her soldier husband
In Elegy IV.3 (or V.3 in editions of five books) a woman named "Arethusa" writes to her husband "Lycotas" in the army. These are obviously pseudonyms (Arethusa was the name of a famous nymph), but we do not know who they represent; they may be fictional characters. Lycotas has been away for years, but she faithfully weaves clothing to send to his camp and is worried about his health. She remembers all the things that went wrong at their wedding, a bad omen for their marriage. She curses the man who invented war, and compares him to the accursed mythological character Ocnus, condemned forever to weave a rope which a hungry ass keeps eating (a painting of Ocnus is described in Pausanias Book X.29.1).
Arethusa is alone in bed, comforted by her sister and a nurse, who tells her optimistic lies that it is only the weather that delays him. She kisses his weapons that he has left at home. She is also comforted by her pet puppy, Craugis, who alone shares her bed (the name is from the Greek kraugê, the "baying" of a dog; perhaps we should call her "Woofie"!).
Arethusa envies the Amazon queen Hippolyte, who fought like a man, and wishes she could join Lycotas in the army. Interestingly, she consults a map to see all the places he has been, and to learn about them. She seems to be a docta puella, an educated girl like Cynthia. She makes offerings at all the altars, and pays attention to omens — a hooting owl, a sputtering candle (a good omen) which must be acknowledged by a sprinkling of wine. She is worried that he may be having affairs, and says that she only wants him back if he is faithful. But she assumes that he will be awarded the pura hasta, the ceremonial spear that was a badge of honor for those who had distinguished themselves in war.
Quotation of the Month
For our Classical Quotation of the Month, we bring you, in Latin and English, Propertius' Third Elegy from Book IV, taken from the Loeb edition of 1916.
Above: Roman soldiers (officers, standard-bearers, and musicians). Illustration from Caesar's Commentaries, ed. Francis W. Kelsey, 1918.
Above: Eagles fly across a wintry sky, Croton-on-Hudson, New York, January 13, 2021. Photo by C.A. Sowa. Top: Black-figured cup from Laconia, ca. 560 B.C., now in the Louvre. Photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol, June 1, 2007.
Eagles rule the sky
The eagles have been soaring past my window, back and forth over the Hudson River. The river has been cleaned up, and the fish are back, ready for the majestic birds to swoop down for a meal. When the wind blows strongly, they actually fly backwards, but they do not seem to mind; they just ride the wind. Every year at this time, the Village of Croton hosts the Teatown Lake Reservation's EagleFest, where birdwatchers are invited down to Croton Point Park to watch and photograph these lords of the sky on their annual winter migration. This year, because of the pandemic, the Fest is mostly virtual, but the eagles will still come.
The Hudson River eagles are the American Bald Eagle, the national symbol. They are not actually bald, but the adults are famous for their helmet of white feathers. This distinguishes them from their kin, the Golden Eagle, distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It is the lordly Golden Eagle who sits on the sceptre of Zeus.
Pindar's First Pythian Ode: The eagle, king of birds, charmed by the lyre
The poet Pindar shows us another side of this king of birds (archos oionôn), for we see his susceptibility to the soothing effects of music. Pindar wrote his First Pythian Ode for Hieron, king of the city of Aetna on Sicily. The Ode celebrates Hieron's victory in the chariot race in the Pythian Games of 470 B.C. The Pythian Games, held in honor of Apollo every four years at his sanctuary at Delphi, were one of the four great Panhellenic Games of ancient Greece, along with the Olympic, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.
The Ode begins with an invocation of the lyre, an instrument shared by Apollo and the Muses. It is the instrument that begins the dance and accompanies the singers (such as the ones that will be singing Pindar's Ode). But it can also still the thunderbolt and make Ares, the god of war, lay aside his sword, and it can soothe the minds of deities. And it can make Zeus' eagle, perched on Zeus' sceptre, bend his head, and gently close his eyes, and "slumbering, heave his supple back."
Pausanias' description of the statue of Zeus at Olympia
The eagle was the companion, personification, and alter ego of Zeus. There were many legends and beliefs about the eagle, including Pliny the Elder's claim that the eagle was immune to being struck by lightning. A famous representation of Zeus' eagle was on the gigantic statue of Zeus in his temple at the sanctuary at Olympia, created by the sculptor Phidias around 435 B.C. Standing over forty feet tall, it was made of gold and ivory, over a wooden frame. In his right hand he held a small figure of Nike, the goddess of victory, and in his left he held the sceptre, on which sat a golden eagle.
The statue of Zeus no longer exists, having been destroyed in the fifth century A.D., nor do any copies survive. There are only descriptions by Greek writers and representations on coins and gems. But Pausanias, in his travels, has left us a detailed description of its aspect (Description of Greece 5.11). The description, which goes on for many pages, tells in detail of the many painted and sculpted scenes that decorated the figure and the complicated structure of throne and base. A low sill around the base caught the olive oil with which the statue was regularly lubricated to keep it from being harmed by the marshiness of the place. When Phidias had completed the work, he is said to have asked Zeus himself whether he was pleased. Zeus answered by striking the floor with a thunderbolt. The spot was covered by a bronze vase, still in place in Pausanias' day.
A modern recreation of Phidias' statue of Zeus
In 1814 a illustration depicting the statue as it may have looked was used as the frontispiece of Le Jupiter Olympien, ou l'art de la sculpture antique, by Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy (see illustration below). Quatremère de Quincy, author of a number of books on architecture, was among the first to point out the use of polychromy in Greek sculpture and architecture. (It came as a surprise to many early art critics that Classic Greek statues and temples were not originally pure white but were painted in gaudy colors!)
Quotation of the Month
For our Classical Quotation of the Month, we bring you, in Greek and English, the opening lines of Pindar's First Pythian, consisting of the first strophe and first antistrophe.
Le Jupiter Olympien vu dans son trône, frontispiece of Le Jupiter Olympien, ou l'art de la sculpture antique, by Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy, 1814. Etching and watercolor. The eagle sits on Zeus' sceptre.
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