Sunday, April 30, 2023

Orpheus: "I was thinking about you. And music."

My wife and I took a trip across Afton Mountain to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA. Performances at the ASC take place in the Blackfriars Theater, billed as the world's only reproduction of the late 16th/early 17th century indoor theater used by Shakespeare to stage many of his performances. Watching a play in this unique venue is an experience not to be missed.

We were not there to take in one of their performances of Shakespeare, which (I must say) are always outstanding, but their production of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice. This modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth was familiar, interesting, and, at times, a little bizarre.

First, the familiar. All the elements of the ancient myth are there. Without giving anything away, I can reveal that Eurydice dies on her wedding day and ends up in the Underworld. Orpheus, heartbroken, works to find his way back to his bride, only to lose her again when a misstep on their exit nullifies the deal Hades made for her release.

The interesting element comes from the story being told from the point of view of Eurydice. She arrives in the Underworld after a long and tiring journey. After having been bathed in the river (which is obviously the Lethe,  but never mentioned by name), she arrives unable to speak, remember her name, or even recognize anyone or anything. She is greeted by the shade of her father, who takes on the task of teaching her who she is, who they are (and were), and about her love and marriage to the musician Orpheus. It was fascinating, and a little touching, to watch Eurydice learn and grow, until she almost reaches the level of consciousness when she died.

Finally, the bizarre, and again I will try not give too much away about some other characters, namely the chorus and Lord of the Underworld. The chorus is played admirably by three individuals who represent rocks in the Underworld. They do not so much comment on the thoughts and actions of Eurydice as they try to teach her the rules of dead and existing in the Underworld. They are affected by Orpheus' sad music and, at one point, are so overcome that they roll across the stage and exit. They do provide an important part of the story, but I kept thinking that this is what it must have been like to watch a beatnik performance way back in the early 1960s. The Lord of the Underworld was portrayed as a childish, creepy individual "who is starting to grow" and "ready to become a man." It was uncomfortable watching his performance, as (I believe) it should have been. My wife commented on the way home that this whole character could have been removed, and the play would have continued on without him.

In all, this was a great performance, and I was glad to have seen it. This work fits right in with the recent publications of ancient myths and stories from the female perspective, and illustrates well the power of myth to remain timeless and meaningful, not matter the age.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Felicem, Roma, diem natalem!

Ancient and modern Rome has always considered April 21 to be the date of its founding. In honor of this auspicious day, I have read Ovid's version of the founding of this city and provided my own translation.

From Book IV, lines 807-862, of the Fasti:

Urbis origo
     venit; ades factis, magne Quirine, tuis.
iam luerat poenas frater Numitoris, et omne
     pastorum gemino sub duce volgus erat;
contrahere agrestes et moenia ponere utrique
     convenit: ambigitur moenia ponat uter.
'nil opus est' dixit 'certamine' Romulus 'ullo;
     magna fides avium est: experiamur aves.'
res placet: alter init nemorosi saxa Palati;
     alter Aventinum mane cacumen init.
sex Remus, hic volucres bis sex videt ordine; pacto
     statur, et arbitrium Romulus urbis habet.
apta dies legitur qua moenia signet aratro:
     sacra Palis suberant; inde movetur opus.               820
fossa fit ad solidum, fruges iaciuntur in ima
     et de vicino terra petita solo;
fossa repletur humo, plenaeque imponitur ara,
     et novus accenso fungitur igne focus.
inde premens stivam designat moenia sulco;
     alba iugum niveo cum bove vacca tulit.
vox fuit haec regis: 'condenti, Iuppiter, urbem,
     et genitor Mavors Vestaque mater, ades,
quosque pium est adhibere deos, advertite cuncti:
     auspicibus vobis hoc mihi surgat opus.
longa sit huic aetas dominaeque potentia terrae,
     sitque sub hac oriens occiduusque dies.'
ille precabatur, tonitru dedit omina laevo
     Iuppiter, et laevo fulmina missa polo.
augurio laeti iaciunt fundamina cives,
     et novus exiguo tempore murus erat.
hoc Celer urget opus, quem Romulus ipse vocarat,
     'sint' que, 'Celer, curae' dixerat 'ista tuae,
neve quis aut muros aut factam vomere fossam
     transeat; audentem talia dede neci.'
quod Remus ignorans humiles contemnere muros
     coepit, et 'his populus' dicere 'tutus erit?'
nec mora, transiluit: rutro Celer occupat ausum;
     ille premit duram sanguinulentus humum.
haec ubi rex didicit, lacrimas introrsus obortas
     devorat et clausum pectore volnus habet.
flere palam non volt exemplaque fortia servat,
     'sic' que 'meos muros transeat hostis' ait.
dat tamen exsequias; nec iam suspendere fletum
     sustinet, et pietas dissimulata patet;
osculaque adplicuit posito suprema feretro,
     atque ait 'invito frater adempte, vale',
arsurosque artus unxit: fecere, quod ille,
     Faustulus et maestas Acca soluta comas.
tum iuvenem nondum facti flevere Quirites;
     ultima plorato subdita flamma rogo est.
urbs oritur (quis tunc hoc ulli credere posset?)
     victorem terris impositura pedem.
cuncta regas et sis magno sub Caesare semper,
     saepe etiam plures nominis huius habe;
et, quotiens steteris domito sublimis in orbe,
     omnia sint umeris inferiora tuis.

And now my translation, which (I must admit) I have rendered a bit more freely than I have allowed my in the past: 

…The beginning of the City has come;
be present for your deeds, great Quirinus!
The brother of Numitor had paid for his crimes,
and every flock of shepherds was under twin leadership;
each one decided to gather the rustic folk and build walls:
“There is no need for any argument,” said Romulus;
“There is great faith in birds: let’s see what the birds have to say.”
The matter is agreed: one goes to the rocks of the woodsy Palatine;
the other heads to the top of the Aventine in the morning.
Remus sees six birds, this guy twelve in a row;
the agreement stands, and Romulus has control of the city.
A suitable day is chosen to mark the place for the walls with a plow:
the sacred rites of Pales were going on; then they get to work.
A ditch is made in the solid rock. They fill it with fruits
and earth gathered from neighboring territories;
The ditch is filled with dirt, and an altar is placed on the pile,
and a kindled fire burns on the new hearth.
Then, pressing down the handle of his plow, he traces out walls with his furrow;
a white cow with a snow-white bull brought the yoke.
These were the words of the king: “Jupiter and Father Mars
and Mother Vesta, be present for the founding of our city,
and whatever gods it is right to invite, pay attention, everyone:
let me do my work with you as my presiders.
May the age for this city and the power of this land as ruler be long,
and let the rising and setting day be under her power.”
That one was praying, and Jupiter thundered his omens
on the left and sent lightning bolts to the left in the sky.
From this good omen the happy citizens lay the foundations,
and in no time at all there was a new wall.
Celer, whom Romulus himself had summoned, urges on this work,
and he had said, “Celer, may those things be your concerns,
and do not let anyone cross these walls or ditch made from the plow;
kill anyone daring such things.”
Remus, not aware of this, began to despise these lowly walls,
and said, “The people will be safe with these?”
And quickly he leapt over: Celer attacks the offender with a shovel;
Remus bloody falls to the hard ground.
When the king learned of this, he fights back his rising tears
and keeps the pain shut away in his heart.
He does not show his grief openly and feigns strength,
and says, “Likewise to any enemy who crosses my walls.”
However he gives him funeral rites; he is no longer able
to hold back his tears, and his hidden devotion is made obvious;
and he gave kisses to the funeral bier having been set down,
and said, “my brother, unwillingly taken from me, farewell!”
He anointed his limbs about to burn: Faustulus and Acca
having let down her hair in grief, did the same as Romulus.
Then those not yet having been made Quirites wept for the youth;
the last flame was placed beneath the pyre wet with tears.
The city rises (who could have believe any of this then?),
about to place its foot as victor over all the lands.
May you rule the world and may you always be under the power of great Caesar,
and may you often have more of this name name also;
and, as long as you stand high over a conquered world,
may all else be lower than your shoulders.

Monday, April 03, 2023

"Division is Destruction"

The Vatican Museum's decision to return artwork from the Parthenon to Athens unfortunately has not provided any incentive for the British Museum to follow suit.

I remember when I was a student in an art history class way back in the mid-80s, the professor stated one of the primary reasons for the existence museums is to preserve and protect art and artifacts from around the world. The idea was that all of the works of one artist or monument or culture should not be contained in one location, but should be distributed to museums and collections around the world in order to insure their survival. To have all of the works of Monet, for example, in one location made the likelihood of their destruction, by man or natural disaster, possible. This statement does carry some truth, BUT the artifact itself should not be hacked up to be dispersed like pieces of cake.

Catherine Titi argues in her latest article that "to divide is to destroy":

The division of the Parthenon marbles between two museums can only be compared to the fragmentation of a monument. Can we imagine the Sistine Chapel split in two? Michelangelo’s famous fresco The Creation of Adam divided, God’s outstretched hand separated from that of Adam to whom it gives life?

Do read the article and give some thought to the matter. The Parthenon deserves to be made as whole as possible and preserved, not scattered around the museums of the world. 

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Vatican To Return Fragments of the Parthenon

Photograph of the the Vatican fragments (courtesy of Kathimerini newspaper) frpm the Greek City Times article (referenced below)

Pope Francis has decided that it is time for the Vatican to return some fragments from the Parthenon in Athens. The Greek City Times reported this development after a recent visit by the Pope to Greece. Even though the article reports that the Pontiff does not intend this move to be seen as a prod to the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles, one can hope that it provides another example and opportunity to review and reconsider the ongoing dispute

Monday, March 13, 2023

Did the Greeks Found Rome?

An article in the Greek Reporter reminds us that the story of Romulus and Remus is not the only one to consider when pondering the founding of Rome:

...what many people do not know is that Greek legend tells us that [the city founded by Romulus] was not actually the first settlement that existed on the Palatine Hill. Before Rome, there was a Greek city which existed in the same place.

Romulus and Remus, the Lupercal, Father Tiber, and the Palatine on a relief from a pedestal dating to the reign of Trajan (AD 98-117). By Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006), Public Domain,

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Suetonius Describes the Death of Caesar

The Ides of March are nearly upon us, so I thought I would mark the occasion with a reading of Suetonius' description of the assassination of Julius Caesar. So many people today know of this episode from history through Shakespeare's telling of the tale, but it is obvious, after reading the passage below, that the bard was familiar with this passage (Suetonius, Divus Iulius, 82):

Assidentem conspirati specie officii circumsteterunt, ilicoque Cimber Tillius, qui primas partes susceperat, quasi aliquid rogaturus propius accessit renuentique et gestu in aliud tempus differenti ab utroque umero togam adprehendit: deinde clamantem: 'ista quidem vis est!' alter e Cascis aversum vulnerat paulum infra iugulum. Caesar Cascae brachium arreptum graphio traiecit conatusque prosilire alio vulnere tardatus est; utque animadvertit undique se strictis pugionibus peti, toga caput obvoluit, simul sinistra manu sinum ad ima crura deduxit, quo honestius caderet etiam inferiore corporis parte velata. Atque ita tribus et viginti plagis confossus est uno modo ad primum ictum gemitu sine voce edito, etsi tradiderunt quidam Marco Bruto irruenti dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον; Exanimis diffugientibus cunctis aliquamdiu iacuit, donec lecticae impositum, dependente brachio, tres servoli domum rettulerunt. Nec in tot vulneribus, ut Antistius medicus existimabat, letale ullum repertum est, nisi quod secundo loco in pectore acceperat.

Fuerat animus coniuratis corpus occisi in Tiberim trahere, bona publicare, acta rescindere, sed metu Marci Antoni consulis et magistri equitum Lepidi destiterunt. 

I translate this into English as,

The conspirators, with the appearance of duty, gathered around him (Caesar) as he was sitting down, and immediately Tillius Cimber, who had chosen the first role, approached nearer, as if about to ask something, and, as Caesar was dismissing him and, with a gesture, waving him off to another time, he grabbed his toga by each shoulder: then, with Cesar shouting, "This indeed is violence!" one of the Casci, standing behind, wounded him a little below the throat. Caesar grabbed Casca's arm and stabbed it with a stilus. and then having tried to jump up he was prevented by another wound; and as he noticed on all sides that he was being attacked by drawn daggers, he covered his head with his toga, at the same time with his left hand he drew down the lap to the bottom of his legs, in order that he might fall more decently, with also the lower part of his body covered. And in this way he was stabbed with twenty-three blows, with only one groan, without a word, given at the first blow, although certain ones have related that he had said to Marcus Brutus rushing toward (him): "You too, son?" He lay lifeless for quite a while with all the others scattering, until three young slaves placed him on a litter, with an arm hanging down,  and carried him back home. And, as his doctor Antistius estimated, not any of his so many wounds was found lethal, except the one he had received in the second place on his chest.

It had been the intention of the conspirators to drag the body of the deceased into the Tiber River, to confiscate his property, and to cancel his business in the senate, but because of the fear of Marc Antony, the consul, and of Lepidus, the magister equitum, they stopped.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

St. Patrick Writes About Himself

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I thought I would take a look at some of the fifth-century Latin written by this remarkable individual and patron saint of Ireland. Take a look at the very useful website St. Patrick's Confessio, which allows one to "[r]ead what St. Patrick actually wrote in his own words."

Epistola ad milites Corotici, X

Numquid sine Deo vel secundum carnem Hiberione veni? Quis me compulit? Alligatus sum Spiritu ut non videam aliquem de cognatione mea. Numquid a me piam misericordiam quod ago erga gentem illam qui me aliquando ceperunt et devastaverunt servos et ancillas domus patris mei? Ingenuus fui secundum carnem; decorione patre nascor. Vendidi enim nobilitatem meam -- non erubesco neque me paenitet -- pro utilitate aliorum; denique servus sum in Christo genti exterae ob gloriam ineffabilem perennis vitae quae est in Christo Iesu Domino nostro.

Here is the source of the text; the translation below is my own.

A letter to the soldiers of Coroticus (10)

Is it possible that I came to Ireland without God, even following my own flesh? Who compelled me? I have been so bound by the Spirit that I do not see anyone of my own family. Is it possible that I grant holy mercy from myself towards that people who once captured me and killed the enslaved men and women of my father's house? I was a free-born according to the flesh; I was born from my father, a decurion. Indeed I sold my noble status for the service of others -- I am not ashamed of this and I do not regret it; accordingly I am a servant in Christ for people of a foreign land on account of the indescribable glory of everlasting life which is in Jesus Christ, our Lord.