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Vergil in Russia: milestones of identity

In 1979, one of the most prominent Russian classical scholars of the later part of the twentienth century, Mikhail Gasparov, stated: “Vergil did not have much luck in Russia: they neither knew nor loved him.” Gasparov mostly blamed this lack of interest on the absence of canonical Russian translations of Vergil, especially when it came to the Aeneid.

There have been several attempts at translating the Roman epic into Russian, four of them significant. In the 18th century, Vasilii Petrov (1730-1778), the court poet of Catherine the Great, was the first poet to undertake this monumental task. His translation, although highly praised by Catherine and the newly established Russian Academy, was ridiculed by the educated elite as a feeble shadow of the great Roman poem. Another attempt at translating the whole epic did not happen until the late 19th century and was undertaken by prominent Russian poet Afanasii Fet (1820-1892), who, together with Russian philosopher Vladimir Solov’ev (1853-1900), attempted to finally bring the Aeneid to the Russian reading public. While this translation was received much more favorably, it still did not acquire its desired canonical status.

Valerii Briusov (1873-1924), one of the founders of Russian Symbolism and an accomplished translator, devoted most of his life to yet another translation of the Aeneid but also fell short of the mark because the final version of his translation exhibited many ‘foreignizing’ tendencies, including incomprehensible Latinisms that rendered the text almost unreadable. Sergei Osherov (1931-1983), a Russian classical scholar who undertook another translation during the era of ‘socialist realism,’ adopted a more liberal approach to the Vergilian text, one that rendered it significantly more readable to audiences but steered away from the poetic intricacies and complexity of the original Latin text.

This is the situation Gasparov was referrring to when he alluded to Vergil’s tepid reception among the Russian reading public. And yet the importance of Vergil to the formation of Russian literary identity remained consistent as Russian writers participated in building their national literary canon.

Russian consciousness formed its connection to Rome (and thus to Vergil) through two venues: one was through the great but pagan Roman empire and its political claim entailing imperial power and expansion. Another was through Byzantine Rome and the piety associated with its Orthodoxy. Even Catherine the Great, who prided herself on her secularism and association with Voltaire and Montesquieu, had in mind the leadership of Russia as the religious and political ideal of a unified ecumenical Orthodoxy under which all the Orthodox East would be politically united. Vergil came to be seen as the answer to both discourses, encompassing both the imperial rhetoric and the spiritual quest for a Russian Christian soul.

The 18th century Vergilian reception, one surrounding the text of the Aeneid in Russian literature, was mainly concerned with imperial aspirations. The failed attempts of Antiokh Kantemir (1708-1744), Mikhailo Lomonosov (1711-1765), and Nikolai Kheraskov (1733-1807) at a national heroic epic were encouraged by the Russian ruling family but failed to elicit any interest in the reading public. In the same way, Vasilii Petrov’s first unfortunate translation of the Aeneid reflected the tendency to glorify and idealize the ruling monarch as a way to promote national pride, though it failed to reflect the poetic genius of Vergil in Russian.

As Russian literary figures of the 18th century were experimenting with different approaches to a national epic, a quite influential and popular genre of travesitied epics emerged. In opposition to the courtly attempts to glorify the house of the Romanovs through Vergilian reception, Nikolai Osipov wrote his burlesque Aeneid Turned Upside Down (1791-6), where following the European examples of French Paul Scarron and German Aloys Blumauer, he made Aeneas speak the base language of the Russian everyday man and cast his adventures in a less than heroic light.

Portrait of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (1729-1796), after Alexander Roslin and Fedor Rokotov via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]
“Portrait of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (1729-1796), after Alexander Roslin and Fedor Rokotov” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The epic, however, was not the only genre through which Russian literati tried to bring Vergil to Russia. As with most European receptions of the Aeneid, the tragic pathos of Dido’s love and suicide attracted attention at the same time as the epic did in the 18th century. Iakov Kniazhnin’s (1758-1815) play Dido (1769), which stands at the very beginnings of Russian mythological tragedy, offered his readers an unusual and politicized interpretation of Book 4 of the Aeneid combined with French and Italian influences on his Vergilian reception.

With Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russian literature entered yet another stage of Vergilian reception. The courtly literature was long forgotten and so were the monumental attempts at epic grandeur. Pushkin refrained from any open allusion to—or evocation of—Vergil, limiting them usually to a few passing jokes. Instead, he penned his own diminutive epic of national pride, the Bronze Horseman, in which he conteplated the same issues pondered by Vergil two thousand years earlier. At the center of his poem is the confrontation between man and state, individual happiness and civic duty, which Pushkin approaches in ways similar to Vergil.

While the connection of Vergilian reception with Russia’s “messianic” Orthodox mission manifested itself intermittently in secular court literature and even in Petrov’s translation, the specific and pointedly deliberate articulation of that mission occured in literature at the beginning of the 20th century. This articulation was represented by formative thinkers such as Vladimir Solov’ev (1853-1900), Viacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), and Georgii Fedotov (1886-1951), who saw Vergil not only in a messianic and prophetic light, but as the source of the answers to Russia’s spiritual quest both at home and abroad.

With Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), Russian Vergil entered the stage of post-modernism. Brodsky’s Vergilian allusions are numerous and persist in Brodsky’s poetics through its entire evolution. However, the monumental themes of either imperial pride or messianic mission were replaced by simpler, mundane, and even base themes. Brodsky reshaped Vergil’s Arcadia into a snow-covered terrain and his Aeneas is a man tormented by the brutalizing price of his heroic destiny. As Brodsky reconfigured different episodes from the Vergilian texts through the lyric prism of human emotion, Vergil remained a constant presence both in his poetry and his essays, moving with ease between the ancient and modern, emotion and detachment, Russian and English, ultimately providing a remarkable closure to the Russian Vergil in the 20th century.

Image Credit: “Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia” by Jean-Baptiste Wicar. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Jerome: a model scholar?

The Renaissance vision of Jerome (c. 347-420 AD), as depicted by Albrecht Dürer in a world-famous engraving of 1514, seems to represent an ideal type of the scholar: secluded in the desert, far removed from the bustle of ordinary life (with a lion to prove it), well-established in his institution (as shown by the cardinal’s hat), and devoted to his studies. However, even a casual reader of Jerome’s letters and pamphlets can see that the reality was much more tumultuous. Jerome left Rome for Bethlehem in 384 AD not out of pious devotion but because of a feud with the Roman clergy, who resented his ascetic programme. Even his Hebrew biblical translations, which would later form the core of the authoritative Latin version of the Catholic Church, were frowned upon by contemporaries, including Augustine, who upheld the sacred status of the Greek Septuagint. Moreover, Jerome’s close attachment to a rich and noble Roman widow, Paula, had given rise to salacious gossip. What sort of model can such a man be?

John Norman Davidson Kelly’s classic biography, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies, depicts him as a quarrelsome man rarely at peace with himself and whose writings were often produced in a rush and could be severely lacking in tact. A case in point is the attack against the priest Jovinian in 393 AD, who had dared to claim that Christian virgins were not automatically superior in holiness to Christian married women. Jerome’s exaggerated and aggressive response caused embarrassment even to his supporters, who had urged him to respond to Jovinian’s claim in the first place. To us, his text reads like a choice piece of misogyny, the sort which many still associate with the Catholic Church. Yet at the time, the official church failed to embrace his stance. More interestingly, many of Jerome’s arguments in favour of celibacy have their roots in the classical–that is to say, the ‘pagan’– tradition, which abounds in misogynistic treatises raging against marriage. In short, anyone who was prepared to be offended could find something to offend in Jerome.

But is there a way to combine Dürer’s idealised picture of Jerome with the one outlined by Kelly? Andrew Cain’s monograph, The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity, has taught us how to read Jerome’s often immodest and immoderate statements. They are in fact part of a deliberate strategy to advertise his abilities as a writer and his authority as an ascetic scholar as widely as possible. Cain shows that, for Jerome, it was an essential necessity to attract patrons and sponsors if he wanted to continue his monastic life. He had little wealth of his own and even the vast resources of his friend Paula dried up in the process of supporting Jerome and maintaining the Bethlehem monastery they had founded together. Jerome’s outrageous provocations can be seen as part of a wider effort to draw attention to himself and his projects. It appears that there were just enough people at the time with an interest–political or otherwise–in feeding this particular type of troll.

The taste for Jerome’s opinions and the way in which he expressed them kept changing with the times. He presented a model for the twelfth-century maverick Abelard in his autobiographical Historia Calamitatum, as well as for the less excitable Erasmus of Rotterdam. More recently, Jerome’s feast day on 30 September 1980 was ‘demoted’ from a ‘Lesser Festival’ to a mere ‘Commemoration’ in the festival calendar of the Church of England. Now a well-publicised campaign has been started by Andrew Lenox-Conyngham to restore his former status to Jerome. The aim is to honour his lasting literary and scholarly achievements despite the fact that he was ‘not, perhaps, a very pleasant character.’

Looking back at Dürer’s engraving, we appear to witness a scene of utter serenity; but what Jerome is actually writing we cannot see. Knowing the explosive content of his work, we may wish to re-interpret the blaze around the saint’s head. Conversely, and without too much of a contradiction, we can argue that his fiery rhetoric was not necessarily a sign of fundamental psychological derangement. It may instead have been a calculated attempt to keep himself in the public eye while continuing with the slow, patient work of translating and commenting on the Bible. If we look at him in this light, Jerome appears to have proceeded exactly as the modern funding regime now demands of many scholars: plying a solid, laborious craft to create lasting work while producing a steady stream of funding applications along with evidence of his impact.

Image Credit: “Saint Jerome in his Study” by Albrecht Dürer. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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The afterlife of the Roman Senate

When the Senate of the Free City of Krakow oversaw the renovation of the main gate to the Royal Castle in 1827, it commemorated its action with an inscription: SENATUS POPULUSQUE CRACOVIENSIS RESTITUIT MDCCCXXVII. The phrase ‘Senatus Populusque Cracoviensis’ [the Senate and People of Krakow], and its abbreviation SPQC, clearly and consciously invoked comparison with ancient Rome and its structures of government: Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome. Why did a political entity created only in 1815 find itself looking back nearly two millennia to the institutional structures of Rome and to its Senate in particular?

The situation in Krakow can be seen as a much wider phenomenon current in Europe and North America from the late eighteenth century onwards, as revolutionary movements sought models and ideals to underpin new forms of political organisation. The city-states of classical antiquity offered examples of political communities which existed and succeeded without monarchs and in the case of the Roman Republic, had conquered an empire. The Senate was a particularly intriguing element within Rome’s institutional structures. To the men constructing the American Constitution, it offered a body which could act as a check on the popular will and contribute to political stability. During the French Revolution, the perceived virtue and courage of its members offered examples of civic behaviour. But the Roman Senate was not without its difficulties. Its members could be seen as an aristocracy; and for many historians, its weaknesses were directly responsible for the collapse of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Empire.

In these modern receptions of the Roman Senate, the contrast between Republican Rome and the Roman Empire was key. The Republic could offer positive models for those engaged in reshaping and creating states, whilst the Roman Empire meant tyranny and loss of freedom. This Tacitean view was not, however, universal in the imperial period itself. Not only was the distinction we take for granted, between Republic and Empire, slow to emerge in the first century A.D.; senatorial writers of the period could celebrate the happy relationship between Senate and Emperor, as Pliny the Younger does in his Panegyricus and many of his letters. Indeed, by late antiquity senators could pride themselves on the improvement of their institution in comparison with its unruly Republican form.

The reception history of the Republican Senate of ancient Rome thus defies a simple summary. Neither purely positive nor purely negative, its use depended and continues to depend on a variety of contextual factors. But despite these caveats, the Roman Senate can still offer us a way of thinking about how we choose our politicians, what we ask them to do, and how we measure their achievements. This continuing vitality reflects too the paradoxes of the Republican institution itself. Its members owed their position to election, yet often behaved like a hereditary aristocracy; a body offering advice in a state where the citizen body was sovereign, it nonetheless controlled vast swathes of policy and action and asserted it could deprive citizens of their rights. These peculiarities contributed to making it an extraordinarily fruitful institution in subsequent political theory.

Headline image credit: Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: “Cicero Denounces Catiline.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Making light regulation work

A permanent problem of political and economic management – and one on which many people hold very strong opinions – is how to ensure commercial enterprises comply with society’s sense of fairness and justice without strangling them in red tape. There are many examples of economies whose productive potential appears to have been limited by over-regulation (most of Eastern Europe for much of the twentieth century, for example). On the other hand it was clearly a combination of inadequate regulation and enforcement that allowed the recent financial crisis to happen. What is more, our sense of fairness is outraged by the fact that many of those who had advocated self-regulation played a major part in creating the crisis, walked away with large bonuses and, almost without exception, have escaped criminal charges.

The response in most jurisdictions has been to develop new and stronger regulations, though it is likely to prove politically difficult to fund improved enforcement. Another approach might dispense with regulation altogether and still ensure that commercial malpractice is dealt with according to community values. Classical Athens managed that brilliantly.

There was no regulation, just a very strong belief that contracts should be enforced if they were reasonable, and that people who behave dishonestly should be punished. This was put into practice by a very powerful and democratic legal system, under which anyone could bring a case and have it heard by a jury of 500 of his peers, selected by lot. In making decisions, the jurymen would listen to the lawyers from both sides and any witnesses they produced but would not be guided by any detailed definition of what was right and wrong in particular circumstances. The lawyers might choose to cite precedents, but there was no need for that to affect the way jurors decided to vote. Jurors had to decide who was telling the truth and whether the punishment demanded (generally some form of restitution, sometimes with damages) was fair.

Athens had no need for any official machinery for checking on activities before they went wrong; there were no regulatory bodies, inspectors or auditors. But if you were going to cheat in your business dealings, you were highly likely to be charged by the other party and face the judgement of your fellow citizens. Nor would you bring a case with no merit. Being seen to be honest was important; if a handful of other citizens took a strong dislike to you, they could vote to “ostracise” you and you had to leave town.

This belief in the power of the law, democratically defined and enforced, also meant Athens only needed a small police force (a posse of Scythian archers used to keep public order). Whenever an incident occurred in the streets, we are told “a crowd came running”. Without a police force, the crowd came partly to sort out the problem, but also so they could bear witness in any trial that arose.

Similarly democratic principles applied to the use of wealth. Athens had no income tax system. It collected taxes on harbour movements, sold leases to work the local silver mines, and received a large tribute from allies for defence purposes. Much of this was spent on military campaigns, paying citizens to attend the assembly or serve on a jury, and on magnificent public buildings. There was no regular revenue to cover common needs Athenians considered important, ranging from maintaining ships to staging plays. It was also seen as reasonable that these things should be paid for by the rich. Instead of taxing them, the Athenians established a system of sponsorships or “liturgies” and the wealthy were expected to pick up the costs on a regular basis. If you were identified as being due for a liturgy (which could be very expensive – think a million dollars and more), you still had some legal options. You could demonstrate that you had funded a liturgy recently or more than your share over a short while. This was easy to determine. Or you could identify someone else who was not up for a liturgy and claim they were richer than you. This was not so easy; you had to offer to exchange all your assets for theirs! Athens’ public projects always found funding.

Could a society today operate without regulation and without taxation, depending instead on the power of judgement by peers? Athens had the benefit of its small scale. In its classical heyday, the male citizen population (only males voted in the assembly or served on juries) was never more than about 35,000. (The total population was about 250,000, mostly slaves.) Many citizens knew each other or knew someone who would know any other person they were interested in. Athens also had the benefit of limited technology. Living in the days before machinery provided overwhelming advantages to large companies and full-time operations, many Athenians could attend the assembly or serve on a jury or in the army or navy and still be able to supplement their income by making simple wooden, ceramic or textile objects when they had time at home. On the other hand it has never been so easy as today to tell stories to a large audience and to measure responses. Setting up and managing an effective litigation system that enables anyone to bring a case and has a random group decide on fairness and justice would not be easy, but it worked wonderfully for Athens. Do we take the opportunity seriously enough to try?

Headline image: Bazar of Athens, Edward Dodwell: Views in Greece, London 1821, public domain via Wikimedia

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The Classical World from A to Z

For over 2,000 years the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome have captivated our collective imagination and provided inspiration for many aspects of our lives, from culture, literature, drama, cinema, and television to society, education, and politics. With over 700 entries on everything and anything related to the classical world in the Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, we created an A-Z list of facts you should know about the time period.

Alexander the Great: He believed himself the descendent of Heracles, Perseus, and Zeus. By 331 he had begun to represent himself as the direct son of Zeus, with dual paternity comparable to that of Heracles.

Baths: Public baths, often located near the forum (civic centre), were a normal part of Roman towns in Italy by the 1st century BC, and seem to have existed at Rome even earlier. Bathing occupied a central position in the social life of the day.

Christianity: By the end of the 4th century, Christianity had largely triumphed over its religious competition, although a pagan Hellenic tradition would continue to flourish in the Greek world and rural and local cults also persisted.

Democracy: Political rights were restricted to adult male Athenians. Women, foreigners, and slaves were excluded. An Athenian came of age at 18 when he became a member of his father’s deme and was enrolled in the deme’s roster, but as epheboi, most young Athenians were liable for military service for two years, before at the age of 20, they could be enrolled in the roster of citizen who had access to the assembly. Full political rights were obtained at 30 when a citizen was allowed to present himself as candidate at the annual sortation of magistrate and jurors.

The goddess Juno
The goddess Juno. Photo by Carole Raddato. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Education, Greek: Greek ideas of education, whether theoretical or practical, encompassed upbringing and cultural training in the widest sense, not merely school and formal education. The poets were regarded as the educators of their society.

Food and drink: The Ancient diet was based on cereals, legumes, oil, and wine. Meat was a luxury for most people.

Gems: Precious stones were valued in antiquity as possessing magical and medicinal virtues, as ornaments, and as seals when engraved with a device.

Hephaestus was the Greek god of fire, of blacksmiths, and of artisans.

Ivory plaques at all classical periods decorated furniture and were used for the flesh parts of cult statues and for temple doors.

Juno was an old and important Italian goddess and one of the chief deities of Rome. Her name derives from the same root as iuventas (youth), but her original nature remains obscure.

Kinship in antiquity constituted a network of social relationship constructed through marriage and legitimate filiation, and usually included non-kin — especially slaves.

Libraries: The Great Roman libraries provided reading-rooms, one for Greek and one for Latin with books in niches around the walls. Books would generally be stored in cupboards which might be numbered for reference.

Marriage in the ancient world was a matter of personal law, and therefore a full Roman marriage could exist only if both parties were Roman citizen or had the right to contract marriage, either by grant to a group or individually.

Narrative: An interest in the theory of narrative is already apparent in Aristotle, whose Poetics may be considered the first treatise of narratology.

Ostracism in Athenian society the 5th century BC was a method of banishing a citizen for ten years. It is often hard to tell why a particular man was ostracized. Sometimes the Athenians seem to have ostracized a man to express their rejection of a policy for which he stood for.

Plato of Athens descended from wealthy and influential Athenian families on both sides. He rejected marriage and the family duty of producing citizen sons; he founded a philosophical school, the Academy; and he published written philosophical works.

Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician, advised that children start learning Greek before Latin. The Roman Empire was bilingual at the official, and multilingual at the individual and non-official, level.

Ritual: The central rite of Greek and Roman religion is animal sacrifice. It was understood as a gift to the gods.

Samaritans, the inhabitants of Samaria saw themselves as the direct descendants of the northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, left behind by the Assyrians in 722 BC.

Temple of Zeus
Temple of Zeus. Photo by David Stanley. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Toga: The toga was the principal garment of the free-born Roman male. As a result of Roman conquest the toga spread to some extent into the Roman western provinces, but in the east it never replaced the Greek rectangular mantle.

Urbanization: During the 5th, 4th, and 3rd centuries, urban forms spread to mainland northern Greece, both to the seaboard under the direct influence of southern cities, and inland in Macedonia, Thessaly, and even Epirus, in association with the greater political unification of those territories.

Venus: From the 3rd century BC, Venus was the patron of all persuasive seductions, between gods and mortals, and between men and women.

Wine was the everyday drink of all classes in Greece and Rome. It was also a key component of one of the central social institutions of the élite, the dinner and drinking party. On such occasions large quantities of wine were drunk, but it was invariably heavily diluted with water. It was considered a mark of uncivilized peoples, untouched by Classical culture, that they drank wine neat with supposed disastrous effects on their mental and physical health.

Xanthus was called the largest city in Lycia (southern Asia Minor). The city was known to Homer, and Herodotus described its capitulation to Persia in the famous siege of 545 BC.

Zeus, the Indo-European god of the bright sky, is transformed in Greece into Zeus the weather god, whose paramount and specific place of worship is a mountain top.

Featured image: Colosseum in Rome, Italy — April 2007 by Diliff. CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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