Sunday, April 28, 2013

Some Etruscan images

We have little awareness of their epics, songs, or modes of speech, but the Etruscans left something of their world behind.

Etruscan sculptures did not attempt to glorify or enhance the human subjects, but portrayed physical appearance, age, and infirmity with a careful, objective eye. Some of the earliest examples of realistic Etruscan artwork are small, three-dimensional terra cotta figurines from the Early Iron Age (circa 1000-750 B.C.E.). Etruscan Influences

The Etruscan thread in Metamorphoses 15 is slender but significant. It's interwoven along with figures from the Sabines, Oscans, Greeks, and others whose individual cultural identities were elided in the complex fusion of the Roman state. Linguistic evidence suggests that Etruscan concepts and values were built into the early phases of the Roman monarchy.

The Etruscans were enjoying a highly sophisticated world of delicate art and architecture, ceremony, ritual and trade with Greece at the time Rome was just beginning. Below are a few samples -- more in the next post.

Musician - Triclinium

Warrior - Viterbo

Gold writing


Friday, April 26, 2013

Pursuing Pythagoras

The appearance of Pythagoras in Metamorphoses 15 is a remarkable instance of Ovid's poetic risk-taking. This time he quite deliberately blurs the boundaries of poetry and philosophy, even as the long speech of the ancient sage raises more interpretive difficulties than can be addressed here.

What, for example, to make of a voice of wisdom that seems to skate through a curious set of topics as diverse as hyperbolical vegetarianism, metempsychosis, the Eternal Flux, the Four Ages of Man, the elements, geologic changes, physical changes, autogenesis, the Phoenix, transfers of power, and the sanctity of life? The subtopics are even more varied; these are just the headers from Kline's translation.

The voice of the wise man is at times serene, and at other moments heated -- urgent in its call for an understanding of life that would find the eating of animal flesh inhuman. To him, meat-eaters appear to be the moral equivalent of Thyestes or Polyphemus.

Nowhere does this voice sound more enigmatic than when, in introducing his claims of godlike knowledge, Pythgoras assures us that his lips are being moved by the Delphic god:
Et quoniam deus ora movet, sequar ora moventem 
rite deum Delphosque meos ipsumque recludam 
aethera et augustae reserabo oracula mentis
Magna nec ingeniis investigata priorum 
quaeque diu latuere, canam;

‘Now, since a god moves my lips, I will follow, with due rite, the god who moves those lips, and reveal my beloved Delphi and the heavens themselves, and unlock the oracles of that sublime mind. I will speak of mighty matters, not fathomed by earlier greatness, things long hidden.'
It's hard to overstate how strange this statement is.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Formless air: Motifs in Metamorphoses 15

When Egeria, consort of Numa Pompilius, disconsolately liquifies at Aricia (Metamorphoses 15:479 ff.), her transformation distinctly echoes the tale of Canens in Book 14, whose lover Picus was lost to her through the wiles of Circe. Canens, the daughter of Janus, evaporates at Rome's river:
The Tiber saw her last, with grief and toil
wearied and lying on his widespread bank.
In tears she poured out words with a faint voice,
lamenting her sad woe, as when the swan
about to die sings a funereal dirge.
Melting with grief at last she pined away;
her flesh, her bones, her marrow liquified
and vanished by degrees as formless air
and yet the story lingers near that place,
fitly named Canens by old-time Camenae!’
The Camenae were nymphs who came to be associated with the Greek Muses. They consisted of Carmenta < carmen (English: "charm") a goddess of childbirth and prophecy, and artificer of the Latin alphabet, her two sisters, Antevorta, goddess of the future, and Postvorta, goddess of the past, and, interestingly, Egeria.

Antevorta, Postvorta, Egeria

Thus the mourning of Canens and Egeria in 14 and 15 are joined not merely in an echoic pathos of vanishing nymphs, but also in linking Canens, lamenting her Picus, and Egeria, mourning Numa, to the fountainheads of Latin and ultimately Greek inspiration. But where the Greek often ends in an Apollonian, visual representation -- recall Circe's statue of Picus at her palace -- these Italic muses dissolve into air, flow, voice.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Pythagoras and the Metrics of Heaven

After Metamorphoses 15, anyone curious to know more about Pythagoras and the impact of what was made of his thinking in after times might want to have a look at Measuring Heaven: Pythagoras and His Influence on Thought and Art in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, by Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier (Cornell UP, 2007).

From the portions of the book accessible via Google it's clear the author has pursued Pythagorean themes and mathematical insights tenaciously though the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, tracing the impacts upon church architecture and Renaissance art. Indeed, she indicates early on that her initial inspiration for her study derived from the works of Raphael:

Thursday, April 11, 2013

After Numa: "The ghastly priest"

Numa's trip to Croton gives us the opportunity to hear Pythagoras's speech. It's one of the longest of the Metamorphoses, comparable to that of Ulysses. (A comparative look at the philosopher from Samos with the hero of Ithaca might prove worthwhile, when time permits.)

More to the point for Metamorphoses 15 is to hear the voice of Pythagoras within the strange narratives that frame it. It's tempting, and far too simplistic, to take the philosopher's speech as in some sense a privileged "reading" of what has come before it. To be sure, Pythagoras does "cover" some of the same ground as books 1-14, with a strong emphasis upon mutability, along with an even stronger ethical argument against the eating of flesh. The Greek contemplative mind is here on display -- far-ranging, vivid, and eloquent. It is accompanied by claims of inspiration from Delphi, elements of prophecy, and extraordinary powers of conception and knowledge.

Yet if Pythagoras wants to have the last word, he certainly doesn't get to have it here. His speech is preceded by the tale of Heracles and Croton. It ends by reiterating the warning against devouring living creatures, beginning with an allusion to the high-flying Phaethon of Book 2 before going on to compare the eating of animals to Thyestean feast, and ending with a warning not to bite off more than we might wish to chew:
Let your mouth be free of their blood, enjoy milder food!
ora cruore vacent alimentaque mitia carpant!
Immediately following this, Numa returns to his people:
he taught the sacred rituals, and educated a savage, warlike, race in the arts of peace 
and dies, in the space of six lines.

Lake Nemi, John Robert Cozens
The "segue" that follows is complex and unexpected. Egeria, mourning Numa, melts into a spring in "Oresteian Diana's" sacred grove in Aricia, but not before receiving cold comfort from Hippolytus, who will vividly evoke the climax of the Phaedra. With no preparation or foreshadowing, we pass from Numa's "arts of peace" to a sacred place suffused with Greek nightmares about innocent sons of accursed royal houses: Orestes of the House of Atreus and Thyestes, and Theseus' blameless son Hippolytus, destroyed by Phaedra, daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë.

Ovid doesn't drop these references casually. Orestes, the murderer of a murderous mother, and Hippolytus, destroyed by his father's curse at this stepmother's behest, both had come to this Nemorean grove. It was here that Hippolytus instituted the office of Rex Nemorensis, priest of Diana, says Pausanias. The kingship was open to no freemen; only to slaves. To accede to the throne, the escapee had to kill the previous priest, also a former slave, in single combat. The tale attracted the attention of Macaulay:
From the still glassy lake that sleeps
Beneath Aricia's trees--
Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign,
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain 
It inspired Sir James Frazer as well. As Wikipedia notes, the "successful candidate had first to test his mettle by plucking a golden bough from one of the trees in the sacred grove."

As Book 15 moves from Pythagoras to Numa to Hippolytus and eventually Aesculapius, Ovid gives us a good deal to ponder: A peaceable Sabine king dies, his consort hides in triform Diana's grove in Aricia, a place haunted by memories of powerlessness, of refugees from accursed feasts and Cretan labyrinths, the site of a lurid rite of passage and a savage succession of kings.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Numa's quest for the rule of wisdom

The story was told that the founders of Crotona and Sybaris both consulted the Oracle at Delphi at the same time and were given the choice of wealth or health; Archias the founder of Sybaris chose wealth, while Myskellos chose health. (1, 2)

With the deaths of Romulus/Quirinus and Hersilia/Hora, the foundations of the Roman "thing" are set. Romulus can depart, and become a new god with an Etruscan name, because the young state was strong enough not to depend upon the particular strengths and talents of a single leader.

Ovid has Mars speak that judgment:
Mars, removing his helmet, addressed the father of gods and men in these words: ‘The time has come, lord, to grant the reward (that you promised to me and your deserving grandson), since the Roman state is strong, on firm foundations, and does not depend on a single champion: free his spirit, and raising him from earth set him in the heavens.
'tempus adest, genitor, quoniam fundamine magno
res Romana valet nec praeside pendet ab uno,
praemia, (sunt promissa mihi dignoque nepoti)           810
solvere et ablatum terris inponere caelo.'
Ovid's re-vision of the war god, who removes his helmet (perhaps recalling Homer's tender description of Hector removing his helmet when it scared his young son) -- Mars' thoughtful and attentive memory, his care for his son, is bold but doesn't draw attention to itself. It's interesting that it is the king who is to be "freed" -- when the res Romana is strong enough, the people can let the king go -- a reversal of the usual vision of top-down power structures.

Book 15 begins with a question -- the first word, Quaeritur, underscores the state of uncertainty, rich with the potential for disaster, that comes with the power vacuum after the death of a king (it was in the air.) The question of succession is felt with urgency: Romulus is dead, who shall succeed, and how shall he lead?
Quaeritur interea qui tantae pondera molis
sustineat tantoque queat succedere regi:
This being a poem by Ovid, the quest for a ruler worthy to succeed Romulus is not simply a matter of history or of political science. Instead we get a richly suggestive antipasto involving Hercules, on his return from his 10th labor, visiting Croton, then returning in the dreams of Myscellus several hundred years later, prodding the young man to leave his home city and travel to Italy, where his city will shelter Pythagoras who in turn will host Numa. Dreams, signs, harbingers, become a strong motif in book 15.

If it seems somewhat unconventional to fashion the story of Numa by mixing the legend of the greatest action hero with the history of ancient Crotona we can say it has the strangeness of Ovidian storytelling.

Instead of telling the succession of kings in the literal historical register of "first came x, followed by y," Ovid chooses to portray the event of Numa's reign as the moment when the provincial Sabine-Roman people acceded to the scientific and philosophical breadth and power of Pythagoras, the sage whose work in math and music bespoke a truly cosmopolitan consciousness. They were able to do this because the animo maiora capaci of Numa wanted to go beyond the particulars of Sabine customs, to discover universal laws upon which to base future Roman rule.

Mixing the question of political succession with the cattle drive of Hercules and the mind of Pythagoras is Ovid's way of telling not one story, but several at once. It gives the narrative a certain drunken swagger, yoking (as in Horace's callida iunctura) mythic energy to analytic insight. For Ovid, the quest for a good successor necessarily involves a questioning of "the known" -- one's own unique rules. What does it mean to go from one's narrow home, with its age-old ways and insular rejection of the larger world, to a broader realm in which an attentive mind can compare, contrast, and derive general norms from myriad particulars? To succeed in transitioning from a strong tribal leader to the enduring stability of the res Romana, one needs science, knowledge, a mind that has meditated upon the changing world and arrived at a sense of what abides, what matters and holds true not for the few, or the many, but for all.

Heracles fights Geryon, whose shield bears the image of Medusa

If Plato's philosopher wished to eject poets from the idea Republic, Ovid's ideal ruler seeks out a philosopher. The possibility of this occurs through moments of hospitality -- of Croton, who hosted Heracles, and of Myscellus's city Crotona, famed for taking in the self-imposed exile Pythagoras -- and foreshadowings -- Ovid has Crotona's founding driven both by Heracles; the legend of Myscellus invoked oracular pronouncements.

Hospitality here, as in the Odyssey, involves a civil openness to the other, broadening the mind by bringing it into contact with more of the world. The burden of the beginning of the last book of the Metamorphoses -- its quest -- is to prepare both the ruler and the people to be free. They first must accede to expansive human wisdom, which is what Numa, after broadening his views at Crotona, brought back to Rome. The quest for a stable structure of imperial rule, the poet suggests, finds solid ground not in war, but in the moment after Mars removes his helmet, when a people can choose: do they stubbornly reject all customs and races and religions who are not themselves and enslave themselves to some swaggering strong man, or do they find the philosophic latitude to "entertain" what's new and strange -- a path that can lead to enlightened freedom from kingship?

Political Science examines the conditions for what sort of governance can be had, by what sort of people, with what sort of leader. Ovid's "analysis" is oblique and fantastical -- it is, after all, a poem. In yoking the ultimate action hero to the wide-ranging mathematical and musical rigor of Pythagoras, the poet is bringing the farthest reaches of human power and human thought into proximity. The curiosity of Numa and the hospitality of Crotona are propitious augurs for the balance of knowledge and power necessary if Roman rule is to succeed.