The Cost of Banishment:  Cicero, Ovid, and Aeneas in Exile

David Bamber as Cicero in the TV series “Rome.”

Ancient Rome was violent and decadent.  If you’ve binge-watched the TV series Rome or perused Mary Beard’s best-selling history SPQR, you know that Rome seethed with wars, civil wars, conspiracies, gang warfare, assassinations, exile, poisonings, insanity, promiscuity, lead poisoning, and capricious emperors.

War veterans in ancient Rome obviously suffered PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but the psychological cost of exile is also treated in Roman history and literature.  In Virgil’s Aeneid, the traumatized hero-warrior Aeneas survives the fall of Troy but then must reluctantly lead the survivors into exile—because the gods force him to.  

And Ovid, the frivolous, brilliant poet, was capriciously exiled by the emperor Augustus in 8 A.D. for carmen et error (a poem and an error).  In letters written in the form of poetry, Tristia (Sad Things) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea), the urbane Ovid begs his friends to intercede on his behalf, because he does not thrive among barbarians in Tomis on the cold shores of the Black Sea.  But he died in exile in 17 A.D.

And then there’s Cicero, the most eloquent lawyer and orator in Rome, who was elected consul (the highest office) in 63 B.C. He boasted of his achievements, especially of having crushed the revolutionary conspiracies of Catiline.  But in 58 B.C., he went into exile in Greece, mainly because of the political machinations of his enemy Clodius (which also benefited Julius Caesar).

Cicero’s letters home are pathetic.  He wonders:  has the government stripped his wife Terentia of their land and property?  Are the children all right?

O  desperate me!  O ruined me!   What now?  Should I ask you to come here,  a sick woman, exhausted in body and mind?  Should I not ask?  Should I be without you?  I think I should deal with it thus:  if there is hope of my return, let me know and help manage the affair; but if, as I fear, it has not been settled, come to me any way you can.  And know this:  if I have you, I will not seem entirely lost.  But what will become of Tulliola [their married daughter]? You must see to it:  I have no counsel for you.  But however the matter turns out, my unhappy little one’s  reputation and marriage must be saved.  What else? What should my son Cicero [age 6] do?  May he always be in my embrace and protection.  I cannot write more now.  My sorrow prevents it.

Near the end of the letter, he courageously writes,

We have lived; we have flourished.  Not our vice but our virtue has ruined us.  There is no sin, unless it is that I did not lose my life along with honors. 

Cicero returned from exile to his beloved, deadly dangerous Rome in 57 B.C.   He continued to write and deal with other powerful men until he was put to death in 43 B.C.

The translations of Cicero are my own.

On the Consequences of Mediocrity

“The medium is the message.”–Marshall McLuhan

Mediocrity is both the medium and the message on the internet.  You can blog or tweet your opinions on politics, fashion, yoga, beer, art, travel, movies, and books.  You can pore over rough-hewn, poorly-researched articles at online publications. The facts may be wrong and the writing barely within the laws of syntax, but such stuff has driven newspapers and magazines out of business.

Mediocrity is good enough, writers keep saying at mediocre  online publications.  At Lifehacker, staff writer Nick Douglas shares his muddled thoughts on revising  the high school English canon.  In the  first sentence he declares, “The Great Gatsby is overrated.”  (You can imagine my dismay.)  He asserts, “The point isn’t to build a new canon. The point is to destabilize the idea of the canon, one that has propped up too many mediocre artists and excluded too many brilliant ones, one that feeds into a monolithic idea of America that looks nothing like the country’s actual past or present.”

The so-called “mediocre artists” propped up by the canon are, of course, authors of the classics. (Yes, I’m annoyed.)  Douglas smugly insists that students would benefit more from The Lord of the Rings (I read it when I was 10!) and a Y.A. author named Rainbow Rowell (whom doubtless the students read when they are 10).  His background seems not to be in literature or education: he has no interest in style or structure, and is unfamiliar with the concept of reading outside his comfort zone.  I recommend that he read the critic Maureen Corrigan’s excellent book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

One of the most sophomoric online publications is Book Riot, which bills itself as “the largest independent editorial book site in North America, and home to a host of media, from podcasts to newsletters to original content, all designed around diverse readers and across all genres.”  I don’t mean to single out any particular writer–the articles all read like blog posts–but I was annoyed by Abby Hargreave’s essay, “I Don’t Read the Introductions in Books.”  She says she used to read the introductions in college, but indicates it was kind of a bore, and now she doesn’t anymore.  She really hates spoilers!

Still, unlike Nick Douglas, she tries to be fair.

She writes,

When I graduated but continued reading, I went back to ignoring the introductions and any other forewords. I find now that I’m still suffering from a lack of background on a lot of the older material I read. That’s a natural consequence, but there’s nothing saying I can’t go back and read the introduction after I finish the novel. I often don’t, but that’s not the point. Some books include afterwords as well as introductions or forewords. This is especially great because it seems obvious to me that an explanation or analysis of the book—which introductions, in my experience, often end up being—should come after the main text. Spoilers aside, it’s difficult to get much out of an analysis if you don’t have the context.

It’s not that I mind whether or not she reads introductions. After all, she’s not a scholar.  And I think it’s perfectly sensible to read the introduction after reading the novel.  But I dislike the “It’s-okay-to-be-mediocre” tone.   Mediocrity can be dangerous, as we know from literature.  I recently read Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington’s The Midlander, the third in his Growth trilogy of environmental novels.  (He won the Pulitzer for the second, The Magnificent Ambersons).  In The Midlander, set in Indiana in the early 20th century, Tarkington tells the story of two brothers in a wealthy family, Harlan and Dan Oliphant, who dislike each other from boyhood.  Brilliant, snobbish Harlan graduates from Harvard with honors,  while sweet, stupid Dan barely graduates.

Harlan is a natural aristocrat, living with their wealthy parents in their lovely home, cleverly investing his money, and spending most of his time collecting books and reading.   Dan goes into business and works ceaselessly:  he buys a farm and intends to build a development there when the town grows.  People mock Dan as a harebrained dreamer, but the city eventually does expand in that direction and people buy the lots. Then Dan starts an automobile factory to serve the suburban residents.

Harlan sees the fall of their city as smoky factories are built in the neighborhood and  families flee to the suburbs.  Urban sprawl has attacked his city, as it has  other American cities.  By the end of the book  we appreciate Harlan’s insights. Although we love Dan’s personality,  Dan’s vision was destructive.   And Dan pays the price.

The middle doesn’t always mean mediocrity. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the mythic engineer Daedalus devises wings of feathers and wax to escape from King Minos’s prison.  He tells his son Icarus before they fly across the sea, “Fly in the middle of the path, because if you go too low, the water will weigh down your feathers, and if you go too high, fire will burn your wings.”

Daedalus does not mean mediocrity by the middle:  he knows from the political climate in which he alienated Minos that flying too high was dangerous. But Icarus flies too near the sun, burns his wings, and crashes. And Ovid, too, paid dearly for flying too high. The emperor Augustus  banished him  for carmen et error (a poem and an error).  And though Ovid wrote letters begging friends to intercede on his behalf (Epistulae ex Ponto), he died in exile.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

What I find tragic is not so much the desperation as the new self-congratulatory mediocrity.

Was Helen Enamored or Abducted?

Who exactly was Helen?

Some poets portray Helen as a slut, others as a victim of rape. The usual story is: she committed adultery with Paris, a Trojan prince, and ran away from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta.  Helen, not Paris, is considered the cause of the Trojan War. It’s a pre-feminist thing.  But Homer is sympathetic: in the Iliad, Helen feels her disgrace deeply, and the Greek tragedians vary, with Euripides portraying her differently in two different plays. Modern writers similarly struggle with her character.

In Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, the Iliad is retold from a woman’s point of view.  The narrator, Briseis, a princess enslaved by the Greeks during the Trojan war, does not have a voice in her fate. She is assigned first as a chattel to Achilles, then to Agamemnon. She is raped by both: the best she can say of Achilles is that he is quick, and she suffers  extreme violence at the hands of Agamemnon.

Surprisingly, Helen, a friend of Briseis, and also a friend of King Priam, does have a voice. She is much hated by the Trojans, but she retains her dignity, boldly observing the battles from the ramparts, and  painting the war scenes in her room:  she is a talented artist.   One day, Helen and Briseis walked through the marketplace with only one maid, and Briseis is surprised by her daring.

…she said, “Well, why not?” There was no point in her worrying what people might think. The Trojan women—“the ladies,” as she always called them—couldn’t think any worse of her than they did already, and as for the men . . . We-ell, she had a pretty good idea what they were thinking—the same thing they’d been thinking since she was ten years old. Oh, yes, I got that story too. Poor Helen, raped on a river bank when she was only ten. Of course I believed her. It was quite a shock to me, later, to realize nobody else did.

I am particularly interested in the portrayal of Helen in Roman classics.  Among Roman poets, Ovid is perhaps most sympathetic. Though not a feminist, he portrayed many strong women, especially in Amores, a collection of elegies about love. And I recently read Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of poems in the form of letters between mythological lovers. The correspondence between Paris, portrayed as an attractive dum-dum prince, and Helen, a smart, flirtatious queen with a sense of decorum, is extraordinarily vivid. Helen  declines his invitation to run away to Troy: she cannot be bribed with the gifts, and she wonders what could possibly have given him hope of tori (bed, or if we’re prim, the marriage bed).  Helen asks, “Was it because Theseus took me by force? Once abducted, do I seem twice to deserve rape?”

She goes on to say she returned unharmed except for a few stolen kisses from Theseus.  And Theseus apologized. She asks, “Did Theseus repent so that Paris might succeed him, and my name be always on men’s lips?”

Helen, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

She tells him bawdily how attractive she finds him, and teases him about their flirtation at a dinner party.  If only they had met earlier…but being a king’s wife is not to be taken lightly.  Menelaus went away on business, leaving Helen as hostess.  But she points out that if she left Menelaus there would be war, and that Paris is a beauty, made for love not war.

Helen has said no.

Whether Paris persuades her or abducts her is not treated in the poem. But I have never read a more sympathetic portrayal of Helen.