Sexual Violence in Ancient Myth

Let no one think that the past several years’ worth of very public conversations about the more chilling and uncomfortable parts of classics have had no effect. As I interviewed for a new Latin position last year (something I’ve done rather a lot of over the past fifteen years), I was asked a question that had never been put to me before: how did I handle teaching young students subject matter so thoroughly steeped in violence and horror? Writing prepares you for nothing in life: although I had drafted a series of essays on precisely this topic years ago, I offered up a stumbling response which no doubt betrayed lack of real preparedness and the stench of desperation to not say the wrong thing and ruin my prospects.

But in truth, I think that no interview-ready answer was forthcoming because there is no universally clear path to discussing the rougher bits of antiquity. When I was an undergraduate nearly twenty years ago, my first Classics professor included a clear content warning (before they became de rigeur) before all of his classes with a note that almost all of the readings in the course featured sex, violence, or (just as often) sexual violence. As a callow youth, I no doubt thought that I was learning some deep lessons about how the world really is. Conventional wisdom seems to hold that the more that we are exposed to atrocity, the more desensitized we become. But in typical essayistic fashion I will universalize from my own anecdotal experience and claim that the more one contemplates violence in all its forms, the harder it is to accept, to process, or to sanitize. (When I first learned last year that my best friend from college had murdered her daughter, I felt all of the natural shock and revulsion that one would expect; but every time I rehearse the fact in my mind, it grows more horrific and less comprehensible.)

We all know that old Sophoclean tag that captures the paradox of civilization so well:


“And nothing is more terrible/wonderful than humanity.”

κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.

Most of what we do as Classicists serves to answer what can be framed reductively as two entirely different questions: “What great things did these civilizations do?” and “What horrible acts did these civilizations commit and condone?”

My friend (and former professor) Rosanna Lauriola has addressed the second of these questions in a full codex treatment in Brill’s Companion to Episodes of ‘Heroic’ Rape/Abduction in Classical Antiquity and Their Reception

The book explores the treatment of sexual violence not just in the myths and formalized works of art produced in antiquity, but also in the various literary and artistic adaptations of these stories throughout the history of their reception. Being singularly unqualified to handle the material effectively myself, I have attached below an excerpt from Professor Lauriola’s introduction to the book. (Please note that this was taken from an early proof of the text, and so, while the footnotes have been included, page numbers are not provided.) I had never thought at all systematically about the treatment of sexual violence in the myths and literature of antiquity, and I found her book an essential guide to truly understanding the atrocity exhibition which the ancients left behind for us.


There should be a general understanding, at least for those in the field, about what classical myth is, however elusive the concept itself of myth might be. Classical myth refers to a corpus of significant stories (told and then written down by the ancient Greeks and Romans) which work as a reservoir of archetypal images and situations that explore and address the human condition in its complexity and variety of experiences, while expressing, at the same time, the values, the norms, and the concerns both of their natal and inheriting cultures.[1] Indeed, they are stories that encompass some sort of truth about human nature, which accounts for their survival and their suitability for being re-proposed and appropriated[2] over and over since antiquity. They have remained relevant to almost every era and culture because they are able to reproduce the cultural values required for their survival.[3] Hence, they are able “to still speak to us.”

In light of these common considerations, it is surprising that a particularly relevant theme, singularly pervasive in classical myth and literature, has received little consideration, at least until recently, or else, if any attention has been devoted to it, it has so far been mostly biased or narrow attention, as we shall see.[4] I refer to the motif of ‘heroic’ rape/abduction[5] of women – usually nymphs, heroines, even goddesses, but also mortal women – by the gods and the great heroes of classical myth.[6] After all, the “myth for all times,”[7] and “of superheroic proportions responsible for the fall of Troy,” i.e., the myth of the Trojan war, results from an act of abduction, controversial though it might be: the ‘abduction’ of Helen,[8] a Greek heroine whose birth is in turn the result of an act of ‘rape,’ i.e., the rape of her mother Leda by Zeus metamorphosed into a swan.[9] A ‘grand purpose’ is what ‘justifies’ the god in such an undertaking (!).[10] After all, a series of abductions/rapes of mythical women (Io, Europa, and Medea), climaxing with the aforementioned ‘abduction’ of Helen, significantly marks the opening of Herodotus’ Historiae (“The Histories” I, 1–5) to explain the origin of the war between the Persians and the Greeks.[11] And, if we are to look at the Roman reception of Greek myths by the most prolific poet to have drawn on those age-old stories, i.e., Ovid (1st century BCE–1st century CE), the motif of rape/abduction – and, more generally, of sexual violence – is the privileged one that informs his retelling. In his maius opus alone,[12] the Metamorphoses, the theme accounts for almost half of the poem’s tales.[13] What is more, perhaps not by accident, this same theme characterizes the very first Greek myth that Ovid retells, after the opening section pertaining to the creation of the world up to the flood and repopulation of our planet (Metamorphoses I, 1–433). It is the myth of Apollo and Daphne (Metamorphoses I, 438–567), which is a story of attempted rape.[14] Likewise significantly, another story of attempted rape, the story of Vertumnus and Pomona (Metamorphoses XIV, 623–772), closes the portion of the poem that is drawn from Greek mythology, i.e., the first 14 of the 15 books of which the Metamorphoses consists. Indeed, as the poet transitions from Greek themes to Roman themes at the end of this poem, stories involving the motif of rape/abduction slowly yield to historical stories devoid of sex and sexual violence.[15] Furthermore, this same motif is abundantly present in most of the other literary works of Ovid, namely Heroides, Amores, Ars Amatoria and Fasti.[16] There, too, expectedly, the related stories are mostly drawn from
Greek myths.

On these grounds, one might be tempted to look at the motif of rape/abduction as a ‘unique identifier’ of the world of Greek myth. After all, out of all the possible mythological scenes, why does a sexual pursuit and the maiden’s struggle to escape form the central image of the Greek artifact which the Romantic poet John Keats (1795–1821) describes in the incipit of his ode On a Grecian Urn?[17] That is, why is rape/abduction the figure of choice of this poet to evoke ancient Greek imagery? At the very least, this, too, gestures towards the pervasiveness of the motif, which might disguise a specific mindset, an enduring one, as seeds of contemporary attitudes toward rape can be already seen in ancient Greek myth and literature.[18]

Yet, as I have suggested above, this pervasive, unique, and thus typical motif received little attention in itself, until a few decades ago.[19] While it was touched on in the general scholarship pertaining to women, gender and sexuality from the late ‘70s on,[20] it started receiving more attention from the late ‘80s through the ‘90s,[21] until it became, from the late ‘90s to our 21st century, the central topic of some monographs. Such is the case, for instance, of Rape in Antiquity by S. Deacy and K. F. Pierce (1997), which constitutes a landmark in the history of the classical studies on this topic.[22] Even more recently, it has become one of the most frequent topics of a series of academic papers and Master’s or Ph.D. theses that deal mostly with the corpus of Ovid’s works, with a preference for the Metamorphoses,[23] and often participate in a discourse which might be of more topical relevance for a specific geographic area where the heritage of classical antiquity has taken root, although it should be of global concern, for rape is a burning, live issue of the human condition. I refer to North America, more particularly to the United States, where the rape rate is extremely high above all on college campuses,[24] i.e., in a place in which people are far more likely than elsewhere to be exposed to the study of works that belong to our classical heritage, Ovid in primis.[25] Indeed, in 2004, at Mills College, a small liberal art school for women in the San Francisco Bay area (California), a student of an Ancient Myth course “transformed a Classic,” namely Ovid, by shocking her professor, M. Kahn, with a question that would surprise all of us, at least on a general basis.

Why have you assigned a handbook on rape?[26]

This was the startling question that the student posed, referring to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Besides challenging the professor’s perfectly good reasons for assigning that poem in a Classical Mythology class, such a question was most of all challenging the conventional and traditional view of Ovid’s Meta­morphoses as a compendium of myths about the mutability of human nature (cf. Metamorphoses I, 1–2) and the fickleness of the gods, all informed by some wry overtones. The student was providing a far different perspective, one that – we should admit – has been glossed over for centuries, one that would have resonated more with her own reality, for “rape forms part of the realities of college life,”[27] just as it was, indeed, part of ancient women’s realities, a part which they might have liked to denounce, had they had a voice.

That student’s perspective reveals the way she, and many others, read the Metamorphoses, i.e., the way she ‘received’ the text, unconsciously applying one of the cornerstones of reception theory, according to which reading is not exclusively a matter of discovering what a text means; it is also a matter of discovering what it means to you, i.e., a process of interpretation,[28] appropriation, and adaptation.[29] Like the authors in their writing process, so the readers, in their reading process, are shaped and influenced by their own cultural context, which makes the analysis of the age-old stories of rape/abduction, in their own time and in their reception, even more particularly challenging, considering how elusive the concept itself of rape was and still is.[30] Yet, as we shall see, namely starting from those age-old stories it is possible to identify an almost unbroken and consistently operative existence of some specific features connoting the occurrences of rape, past and present, above all in terms of stereotypes, prejudicial attitudes, societal mindset, and the silencing of women.[31] It is, indeed, a continuity that has proven to be prominently at the woman-victim’s expense, as an erasure of the female subjective experience of rape/abduction characterizes, almost indifferently, both past and present. This ‘continuity at the woman-victim’s expense’ calls for a deeper analysis of those stories, both in their own context and in their reception, with a focus on the woman’s perspective. The intention is to uncover female subjectivity, which means to recover women, their feelings and their unheard voice in their experience of the “greatest sorrow possible,” as rape was once fairly defined.[32] Such a “sorrow” has been glossed over, practically always, by the traditionally male ways of seeing, as mirrored in the male-authored texts on which we mostly depend;[33] very often, that very “sorrow” has been additionally downplayed either by the sporadic analysis of the reception in art of some of those stories – as will be seen – or by the more specific studies of the topic in antiquity, mostly concerned with the legal issues and social perceptions that would account for all but the victim’s subjective viewpoint.

The present analysis consists of a study of some paradigmatic cases, episodes of those ancient stories of rape/abduction from this often-neglected and “forgotten”[34] subjective viewpoint and experience, the woman-victim’s one, which is what ‘spoke’ to that student of Mills College.[35] The aim is to approach those stories in a way that allows space for women, to let them set their voice free, and speak out despite the male authorial intentions and the mostly male-oriented conventional reception. The undeniably disturbing overtone characterizing myths of rape/abduction might have played a role in overlooking them for what those stories really are, i.e., cases of rape, generating a conveniently sanitizing reading which has even reinforced the male ways of seeing and has, subsequently, devalued the female’s subjective experience, including her emotional trauma.[36] It is my intention to recover this perspective and apply it to the selected episodes, which may constitute a paradigmatic sample for the whole complex narrative of rape/abduction in classical antiquity and beyond.

[1]   I broadly built my definition of myth on the discussion of Zeitlin (1986) esp. 123–124. As for the inheriting cultures, I am intentionally avoiding the traditional label “Western” in the wake of the recent discourse about how using the expression ‘Western Civilization’ is inadequate and inappropriate: on the matter, see, e.g., Appiah (2016), Futo Kennedy (2017); contra Kierstead (2019a; 2019b), and Canfora – Rebenich (2021). Cf. also below, n. 000. I subscribe to the idea that there are values and concerns basic to human condition, which are thus independent from any particular ethnicity and do not constitute the ‘birthright’ of any specific culture. I see classical mythology also as a repertoire of archetypes that express what is basic to the human condition, independently from the specificity of a culture. Such is the case with rape and all it involves.
[2]   I am aware of the elusive nature of the various terms belonging to the specific vocabulary of a field that plays a major role in this section and in the whole volume, i.e., Classical Reception Studies. Throughout this work, out of the several, and, at times, overlapping terms describing the types of reception which have taken place, I shall mainly use three specific, and most commonly used, words (with their related verbs), according to the definition provided by Hardwick (2003: 9–10), namely: Adaptation – a version of the source developed for a different purpose or insufficiently close to count as a translation; Appropriation – taking an ancient image or text and using it to sanction subsequent ideas or practices (explicitly or implicitly); Refiguration – selecting and reworking material from a previous or contrasting tradition. Where I deem it appropriate, I shall use a few additional and new terms, as provided through a new methodology recently applied to reception studies, a methodology called ‘transformation theory’: see Abbamonte – Kallendorf (2018) 9–12; Baker (2018) 13–20, on which below, n. 000.
[3]   See also Zeitlin (1986) 124.
[4]   “Little consideration” or “biased/narrow attention” compared to other motifs that have been historically explored for a long time. Unsurprisingly, adequate focus and emphasis started being put on women-related matters only with the rise of the feminism movement in the 1970’s (see below, 000). Yet only recently has the specific subject matter of rape been given due attention, and, additionally, in terms of a pedagogical discourse. About this, see more below, 000.
[5]   I intentionally use this terminological “dyad” (rape/abduction) for, as I shall detail below, the ancient vocabulary related to the topic is quite ambiguous, to say the least. For details regarding this “dyad” and, additionally, its connotation as ‘heroic,’ see below, 000.
[6]   The magnitude of this often-disregarded topic is such that it would require perhaps a multivolume work to cover and discuss all the cases. For the different scope of the present volume, and, subsequently, the space accordingly reserved for this section, I had to select only a few stories and specific characters, yet ones capable of providing a ‘big picture.’ On my selection and related rationale, see below, 000. As for the pervasiveness of this motif, see, e.g., Zeitlin (1986) 122–123; Rizzelli (2012) 317 with n. 54; also, below, 000.
[7]   Easterling (1997) 173.
[8]         The quotation is from Brownmiller (1975) 284. The case of Helen’s abduction is a
controversial one because of the contradictory ancient accounts of the story where, sometimes, she appears as a victim (more precisely of Aphrodite’s manoeuvres), and, other times, as a willing and consensual accomplice. Indeed, hers can be seen as a paradigm of the ambiguity characterizing the literary and artistic renditions of stories of heroic rape/abduction as far as the woman’s role, i.e., ‘her will/consent,’ is concerned, an ambiguity – I would venture to suggest – which is well reflected in modern narratives of rape today. I shall discuss later, at length, this problematic with reference to the ambiguous ancient terminology and stories (see below, 000). As for Helen’s case, a good overview and discussion through all the literary renditions of her story is in Rizzelli (2012) 317–326. See also Morales (2016), with a focus on the late epic poet Colluthus’ Abduction of Helen.
[9]         For sources about this case of rape, see below, 000. According to a variant of this traditional myth, Helen was in fact the result of Zeus’ rape of the goddess Nemesis. Trying to escape Zeus’ assault, Nemesis turned herself into a goose, but vainly, for Zeus turned himself into a swan in order to still possess her. Upon this union, Nemesis delivered an egg; abandoned in a wood, a shepherd found it and brought it to his queen, Leda, who preserved the egg in a casket until it hatched, giving birth to Helen. Leda thus fostered Helen as her daughter: on this variant, see, e.g., Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library III, 10. 7; Pausanias, Description of Greece I, 33. 7.
[10]       As I shall discuss in greater depth later, the ‘grand purpose’ motif is the crucial key, or, at least, one of the most crucial keys, of the ‘sanitizing’ view of rape in antiquity, a view that proves to be the ‘canonical’ view: see more below, 000.
[11]       In the opening of his work, Herodotus reports the Persians’ version about the remote cause of the recent conflict between the Greeks and the Persians (449–448 BCE): Persian learned persons (Herodotus, Historiae I.1) say that it all started with the Phoenicians’ abduction of a Greek princess, named Io, to which the Greeks responded by abducting the Phoenician princess Europa, so that “the account between the two was balanced” (Herodotus, Historiae I, 2.1). But later on, the Greeks were the ones who committed a second wrong as, on the occasion of some business in Aea, a city of the Colchians, they abducted the King’s daughter, princess Medea (Herodotus, Historiae I, 2.2). To this abduction, in the second generation after this, Paris Alexander, son of Priam of Troy, responded by getting himself a wife from Greece, by capture: he in fact carried off Helen (Herodotus, Historiae I, 3.1–2). Hence the Trojan war took place, and, in the Persians’ opinion, it was the taking of Troy which began their hatred of the Greeks (Herodotus, Historiae I, 5.1). But – Herodotus adds – the Phoenicians have a different story about the very first case, i.e., Io’s abduction, for they tell that she sailed with the Phoenicians of her own accord (Herodotus, Historiae I, 5.2): on this version of the story, see also below, 000. The motif of rape is a recurrent topic in Herodotus’ work, although “not a topic addressed directly or consciously”: Harrison (1997) 187. On the Herodotus passages summarized above, with an attention to the terminology of rape/abduction, see Walcot (1978) and my analysis below, 000. On Herodotus’ idea of rape, as “an amalgam of conscious and unconscious attitudes and preconceptions” that would mirror a “coherent body of impressions” that the Greeks had about rape, see Harrison (1997; the quotations are from p. 187 and p. 188).
[12]       As Ovid himself called his Metamorphoses: Ovid, Tristia II, 63.
[13]       Including attempted rapes, according to Matz’ calculation, the motif is present in 52 out of 104 tales: Matz (2017) 50. This number is consistent with the one previously provided by Curran (1984: 263), who talks of “some fifty or so occurrences of forcible rape, attempted rape, or sexual extortion hardly distinguishable from rape”; similarly, Richlin (2014) 134. Other scholars have attempted to literally count the number of stories of rape spread throughout the Metamorphoses. The numbers provided remain high, but they are not consistent; the scholars are not explicit regarding the criteria for their calculations, although – based on tables and/or statements they sometimes offer – they tend to include ‘everything,’ meaning: attempted rape, homosexual rape (as is the case with Zeus and Ganymede: Metamorphoses X, 155–161), and more generic ‘sexual assault.’ For instance, Champanis (2012: 119–122) provided a well organized “Table of Rapes in The Metamorphoses” where I can count 40/41 cases (40 if I exclude the second mention of Europa’s story occurring in the description of Arachne’s tapestry in Metamorphoses VI, 103–128); Marturano (2017), on whose work I shall focus later, kindly shared with me a draft list of all the rape stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a list that she compiled to elaborate her related MA thesis: in Marturano’s list I count ca. 47 cases, including what Marturano labels as: “possible rape” (namely, the episode of Apollo and Hyacinthus: Metamorphoses X, 162–219), “sexualized violence against Scylla by Circe” (Metamorphoses XIV, 1–74), and the “Sybil’s description of her rape by Apollo to Aeneas” (Metamorphoses XIV, 129–153), all of which are not present in Champanis’ table. Exceptionally, Murgatroyd (2000: 75) talks of 19 in the Metamorphoses, without providing any comment which could have helped us to understand what he has included and what not. On the pervasiveness of this motif in Ovid’s whole corpus, see below, nn. 16–17.
[14]       See below, 000.
[15]       Matz (2017) 50–51: this scholar notes that the metamorphosis linked to the rape motif is replaced “with a flurry of apotheoses” in the last two books of Ovid’s poem, where in particular male members of the Julio-Claudian line are the ones being apotheosized.
She argues that two out of the three male apotheoses occurring in the last two books of the poem, namely Romulus’ and Julius Caesar’s apotheoses, are however “modeled after the rapes of the earlier books and should be interpreted in the context of Ovid’s many rape scenes in his epic.” A relationship between violence, including rape, and apotheosis has been investigated with a focus on Ovid’s Fasti by Beek (2015), on which see also
below, n. 17.
[16]       While the majority of scholars who have occupied themselves with the rape motif in Ovid have focused on the Metamorphoses, to my knowledge Marturano (2017) is the only one who has fully investigated the theme in the whole Ovidian corpus, from a specific perspective which I shall detail later: see below, 000. Based on the aforementioned shared list (above, n. 14), it is possible to approximately identify the following numeric occurrences, which range from mere, yet significant, hints/mentions or imagery to detailed accounts of rape: ca. 5 in Heroides, ca. 17 in Amores; ca. 6 in Ars Amatoria; ca. 15 in Fasti (for Metamorphoses, see above, n. 14). In her 462-page MA thesis, Marturano covered almost all of them, also adding a section about “Images of sexualized violence in Ovid’s Exile poetry.” A few other scholars have, however, expanded their investigation of the motif from the Metamorphoses to Ovid’s other works. Such are the cases of the following studies, to mention the major ones (in chronological order): Murgatroyd (2005), who focused on Fasti, has analyzed the 11 rape narratives that he counted, out of the 58 mythical and legendary passages present in Fasti (ca. 5%): Murgatroyd (2005) 63 with n. 2; Hejduk (2011), who, after a quick overview of stories of rape in Fasti, mainly focused on 2 ‘rape scenes’ in the 2nd book of the poem (i.e., Faunus’ rape of Omphale, and Sextus Tarquinius’ rape of Lucretia); Champanis (2012), who, in her work on the motif in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (see above, n. 14), devoted a chapter to cases of rape in Fasti and Ars Amatoria; Richlin (2014: 145–149, and 150–154), who discusses 2 stories in Ars Amatoria (“The Rape of the Sabines,” and “Achilles and Deidamia”) and 3 specific stories of rape in Fasti, out of the 11 that she, too, has identified in this poem, 3 cases that she labels as “comic rapes” (namely: “Priapus and Lotis,” “Faunus and Omphale/Hercules,” and “Priapus and Vesta”); last but not least Beek (above n. 16), who, in her thesis on the relationship between violence and apotheosis in Fasti, devoted a long section to the analysis of rapes (namely apotheosis via rape) in this poem (Beck [2015] 119–176).
[17]       See Zeitlin (1986) 122–123. As we shall see, pursuing/chasing a maiden is the typical prelude to rape/abduction: below, 000. On the typical setting of sexual pursuit, which usually includes a meadow, or a nearby wood, see also below, 000.
[18]       As I shall mention later, with some more details (below, 000), rape is also a topic particularly recurrent in Greek New Comedy, mainly in Menander (4th–3rd century BCE), and in his Roman counterparts, Plautus (3rd–2nd century BCE) and Terence (2nd century BCE), which contributes to proving the pervasiveness of this motif in classical literature, a pervasiveness that – as we shall see – mirrors specific social concerns.
[19]       The silence surrounding this specific topic, and, subsequently, its consistently being downplayed and overlooked in the long-established tradition of the study of the classical world is, ultimately, a result of a likewise long-established ‘sanitizing’ attitude that has been displayed toward rape: it is something disturbing, something that would ‘stain’ the grandeur of certain poetry and art (cf. similar considerations in Richlin [2014: 134]). The ‘sanitizing’ attitude and approach to rape will be one of major topics of my analysis, for which see below, 000.
[20]       Of course, as hinted at above (n. 5), which happened in the wake of the feminist movement. The very first major history of rape, and pioneering study, resulting from the rising of the feminist movements, is the still-influential book of Susan Brownmiller Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975): the author does mention the issue with reference to antiquity, but she touches on the topic mostly en passant, mentioning a few well-known cases, without offering any analysis (1975: 283–284). Some years later, Tomaselli – Porter’s historical and cultural inquiry into rape appeared (1986), which includes an entire chapter discussing rape in Greek myth by the aforementioned classicist Zeitlin (see above, n. 1). See also below, n. 22.
[21]       In the ‘90s there is, indeed, a considerable increase both of feminist approaches to the Classics in general, with Rabinowitz – Richlin (1993) marking a significant milestone, and of investigations concerning specific gender/women-related issues in antiquity, including sexuality, pornography, and rape: to mention a few, see, e.g., Richlin (1992), with a chapter devoted in particular to Ovid’s rapes (reprinted in Richlin 2014; as I did above, hereafter I shall always refer to the 2014 reprint); Laiou (1993), with a chapter specifically devoted to seduction and rape in Greek myth, written by Lefkowitz (= Lefkowitz [1993] 17–37); Stewart (1995); Rabinowitz (2011: esp. pp. 1–7); and James (2018), with a specific focus on the pedagogy of Latin literature dealing with the motif of rape (on which, also below, n. 29). The bibliography is obviously wider than the one I can give as a paradigmatic sample. More will be cited as the discussion moves forward. For an in depth-review of the milestones of classicist feminists, outlining the developments in the field in the recent decades, see Gold (2018) at:
[22]       It is worth noting that to mark the 20th anniversary of the first edition of this book, which remains an example of an innovative approach to the theme, in 2017 the University of Roehampton (London – UK) organized a new conference, similar to the one held in 1994 (Cardiff University, Wales – UK) on which the book was built. The conference booklet is available online, in PDF format, at
[23]       See above, 000. For more discussion, also, below, 000.
[24]       The statistics are really concerning, both in general and in particular, in college campuses, where rape is almost ‘epidemic.’ According to the website of the US’ largest anti-sexual violence organization RAINN (“Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network”), founded in 1994, “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime,” (i.e. ca. 16.6%); 82% are girls or young women; the age group at elevated risk is 18–24; women, age 18–24, who are college students, are three times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence ( Indeed, according to some studies and statistics provided by the website of a new organization founded in 2000, i.e., the NSVRC (“National Sexual Violence Resources Center”:, under the entry “Sexual Violence and College Campuses,” one can read: “In the late 2000s and early 2010s, a commonly cited prevalence rate for college women [undergraduate students who experienced episode of sexual violence] was one in five”; through more specific analysis, it was also found that “one in five undergraduate college women is sexually assaulted” was a “reasonably accurate average”: Muehlenhard – Peterson – Humphreys – Jozkowski (2017). Unfortunately, on the same website new alerting data are reported, as it states: “The 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct prepared for the Association of American Universities, updating a 2015 study of the same name, found that sexual assault and misconduct at 33 of the nation’s major universities was almost one in four undergraduate women”: Cantor – Fisher et all. (2019). Although such a high rate of rape among college students seems to be peculiar to U.S. campuses, the situation is concerning elsewhere, as well. Confining ourselves to a few other countries, see, e.g., Brennan – Taylor-Butts (2008) for Canada; Reynolds (2018) for the UK.
[25]       It must be noted that Ovid, and particularly his Metamorphoses, is standardly present in the academic curricula of American institutions of High Education, from Latin language classes to more generic Ancient Civilization or Classical Mythology courses in translation.
[26]       The quotation is from Kahn (2005) 1, i.e., from the opening page of her book where she expanded the discussion that she gave in a previous paper (Kahn: 2004). It is through the paper, indeed, that, at first, Kahn set in motion the whole reconsideration of the teaching of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, based upon the question of her student. It is also from Kahn’s paper that I borrowed the expression “transformed a Classic.”
[27]       It should be noted that, very probably following on from the observation of the Mills College student and the ensuing reflections of her professor, M. Kahn, rape in classical antiquity, with a very major focus on Ovid’s Metamorphoses (see above, n. 14 and n. 17; also below, 000), has become the subject of pedagogical essays, in turn mostly based on lectures, projects, and students’ responses to them, included both in general courses either of Latin Literature or Ancient Civilizations/History (with the case of Lucretia being the most ‘in the spotlight’), and in more specific ones on ancient authors, such as Ovid, in primis, but also Greek and Roman New Comedy. Besides James (2018), on which above, n. 23, to mention a few, such is also the case of Lauriola (2011); Widdows (2011); Wardrop (2012); Gloyn (2013); Hong (2013); Lauriola (2013) – the last three being the result of speeches delivered in the very first panel devoted to the teaching of difficult topics, with a focus on rape, held by the then-APA 2010 National Convention at Anaheim (CA); James (2014); Thakur (2014); Hales (2018). Recently the issue has been debated with reference to secondary Classics classrooms as well: see, e.g., Hunt (2016).
[28]       Eagleton (1996) 74.
[29]       For this vocabulary, see above, n. 3.
[30]       I shall later focus on the terminological and conceptual matters: see below, 000.
[31]       For more details, see below, 000.
[32]       Douleur sur toutes autres: such is the way in which the prolific and versatile medieval French poetess, and first female professional writer, Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) defined ‘rape’ in her well-known book Le livre de la cité des dames (“The Book of the City of Ladies”: ca. 1405) (Part II, section 44.1), while defending women from the stereotypical assumption they “they like to be raped.” On de Pizan’s engagement with, and rewriting of, classical mythology with such progressive (for her times) discussions and views about women and about rape see, e.g., Wolfthal (1998), on which below, 000. For more details about de Pizan’s handling of ‘heroic’ rape, below, 000.
[33]       On this issue, see, e.g., Gold (1993) 76–78 who, in a way, summarizes the debate, begun in the early ‘90s, about the validity of using the canonical texts, which are basically male-authored texts, as a record of ancient women’s real experiences. About this debate, see, e.g., Culham (1990), Gamel (1990), Keuls (1990), Richlin (1990): all of them discuss this specific issue with reference to Ovid, as their contributions belong to the Helios vol. 17 (1990) devoted to “Reappropriating the Text: The Case of Ovid,” and offering a reading of Ovid from a feminist viewpoint. On a similar issue, see also below, 000.
[34]       About the meaning I gave to the title of the entire section, see above, 000.
[35]       With this said, by no means I am implying that the reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses prompted that specific reaction in the aforementioned student because she might have been a rape victim. Ovid’s Metamorphoses ‘spoke’ to that student in that way because she was familiar with the college campuses’ rape issue and the related rape culture that dismisses the victim’s viewpoint. On the rape culture and its roots in the classical antiquity, see below, 000. Also on college students’ reactions to the reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, more recently see Waldmann (2018).
[36]       I shall discuss later, in detail, the tendentiously sanitizing approach to stories of rapes, in poets, artists and subsequent re-interpreters/adapters: below, 000.
[37]       I shall discuss this work’s objectives and my perspectives in more depth below (see, p, 000), by also recalling and outlining some very recent preview studies which adopt a similar approach, although they mostly confine themselves to Ovid’s works, in particular to his Metamorphoses: see, in fact, above, n. 14 and n. 17.



Against the Aeneid III: Son of ‘Against the Aeneid’

In Vergilian antechambers
I learned to read the poems
(though most of them not worth it)
that they wrote in ancient Rome.

So many have loved Maro
(Dante among their number)
but every time I read him through,
I sense that I've grown dumber.

We read his verses on the walls,
drawn by Pompeiian hicks.
They seemed to find their proper place
among graffiti dicks.

Well, here's to a man who sold his pen 
(his talent lies in shambles)
all to write about Aeneas
and his endless fucking rambles.

Against the Aeneid II: Revenge of ‘Against the Aeneid’

In setting out to articulate what I had intended not as an assault on the Aeneid tout court, but rather, on its primacy of place in the Latin classroom canon, I did not realize how many readers would raise their weary, pro-Maronian dukes to defend the poem. Indeed, in light of general trends in both culture and criticism, I was surprised to see that antiquity’s most full-throttle defense of both monarchy and empire should have such staunch partisans rushing to its aid.

Perhaps I ought to begin this refinement of my critical stance with a little bit of what we do here on the blog – that is, with a little bit of quoting from antiquity. Indeed, I will start by citing the earliest assault on the poem, launched by none other than Vergil himself:

He arranged it with Varius, before departing from Italy, that if anything happened to him, Varius would burn the Aeneid; but Varius said that he wouldn’t do it. Therefore, when Vergil had begun to despair of his health, he ceaselessly demanded the manuscripts, intending to burn them himself.

Egerat cum Vario, priusquam Italia decederet, ut siquid sibi accidisset, Aeneida combureret; at is facturum se pernegarat; igitur in extrema valetudine assidue scrinia desideravit, crematurus ipse. [Donatus, Vita Vergiliana]

Say what you will about the pettiness of my complaints – they amount to little more than critical carping in reaction the excessive praised heaped upon the Aeneid in comparatively recent years. But Vergil wanted it effaced from the earth entirely.

The Aeneid had the supreme good fortune to become immediately canonical, assigned in schools as the equivalent of a “modern classic” in those early imperial days. Well, what else were kids going to study? Livius Andronicus? Ennius? Cicero’s de Consulatu suo? The Aeneid is a marked aesthetic improvement over all of these, but one must also bear in mind that Augustus’ imprimatur must have counted for something. One would not be surprised to find that any monarch’s pet poetic project had received substantial attention, especially when free and outspoken critical judgment became a dangerous luxury. It’s hard to overlook the fact that the Aeneid’s ringing endorsement of Roman empire and the (prophetically foreshadowed) personal lineage/divine right of the Julio-Claudians had something to do with its inclusion in the school curriculum at such an early date.

Why do we have all of Vergil but just a few insignificant scraps of Cornelius Gallus? Their relations to power may have some small part in this. Naturally, they objection arises: what about Ovid? Was he not on the outs? I’d venture to suggest that his survival in the face not only of imperial hostility but also of his manifest unsuitability to Christian sentiment is a testament to his tremendous aesthetic and literary merits.

Outside of Vergil’s instructions to burn the poem, there was indeed a tradition of criticism of the Aeneid in antiquity. In my previous post, I relied on citation of my own students’ testimony, but Servius cites the existence of a “Vergiliomastix” (Scourge of Vergil), and Donatus mentions that a certain Carvilius Pictor wrote an “Aeneidomastix” (Scourge of the Aeneid), adding that “Vergil was never lacking in haters” (obtrectatores Vergilio numquam defuerunt). Of course, it’s also true that Augustine thought that he had wasted his time being compelled to learn the Aeneid.

When we reflect on Dante’s worship of Vergil, we ought to consider how much (or rather, how little) of ancient literature was entirely unknown to him. The rediscovery of Lucretius had to wait more than another century; one manuscript of Catullus was languishing away in Verona; anything he knew of Greek literature was solely in translation. Though we think of him as steeped in the classics, there was simply less available to Dante than there is now to anyone interested in it. Petrarch was a better classicist than Dante, and regretted that he was never able to read Homer in the original – how might their assessment of the Aeneid changed if they had been more familiar with its source material? (One might also note that Petrarch staked his poetic fame on his Africa, modeled heavily on the Aeneid – but this is almost entirely unread today because, from Lucan and Statius onward, imitation of the Aeneid was an aesthetic dead end. His Canzoniere is the text to read because it has far more liveliness than stale historical epic. This was just as true in the 1st century.)

All periods have their literary fashions. The Middle Ages loved Ovid, the 18th century loved Horace, etc. etc. I will re-emphasize this point: I regard Vergil’s treatment of Polyphemus in Book III of the Aeneid as one of the most affecting scenes in all of ancient literature. But one does not hype an album up as their “favorite album ever” on the basis of one good song, or even a few stellar tracks. I grant the aesthetic excellence of parts of the Aeneid, but I deny its excellence as a whole.

To return to the theme of empire: readings which suggest that Vergil meant to criticize Augustus or imperialism are little more than idle fantasies spun out of our own modern distaste for empire and our reading of a long tradition of subversive work which post-dates the Aeneid. This is just a secular/political version of what Augustine and Dante did in attempting to read Vergil as a proto-Christian allegorist. It constitutes a refusal to take Vergil on his own terms.

Is it really to be believed that this work, which Augustus eagerly oversaw the progress of, contained even veiled criticism of his political program and philosophical sensibilities? Donatus notes that Augustus sent Vergil letters begging for some updates or selections as the poem was being written. Perhaps Augustus, Maecenas, the rest of the inner circle had attained PhD level capacity in missing the point? Maybe a highly literate audience, which was entirely steeped in the poetic traditions which Vergil drew upon and which was on familiar terms with the poet himself missed this subliminal messaging which went unnoticed until readers 2,000 years later gleaned what they hadn’t? I submit that all anti-imperialist readings of the Aeneid stem from a refusal to read the poem on its own terms, within its own context, for what it is: a piece of work that was paid for by a political machine. One can suppose that Augustus was so eager to read new selections because he really enjoyed the poetry, or one can admit that hearing one’s own lineage and achievements placed within a divine and historically ordained teleology might have been eminently gratifying. If you want irony and subversion, cast your eye to Ovid; Vergil no more criticized the Augustan establishment than he predicted the birth of Christ.

Despite the title of these posts, I did not mean to become the modern Aeneidomastix. For the past eight years, I have taught the Aeneid as half of the AP Latin curriculum and I have seen the effect it has on me and my class. Perhaps I was insufficiently clear in my last post: I do NOT mean to suggest that the Aeneid is not worth reading, but I think that it has been undeservedly canonized by its primacy of place in the last few iterations of the AP syllabus, and I am convinced that it is a terrible text for high school Latin students. By way of an English parallel: I love Dickens, but I regard it as a crime against literature that a high school student is most likely to be forced (yes, forced) to read either Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, or Great Expectations. It’s no wonder that they hate reading. When we select a text for teaching, we ought to pick something that really crackles – something endowed with real literary merit that will still afford the student genuine aesthetic pleasure.

Perhaps these criticisms have met with such resistance because so many members of the profession entered Latin literature by passing through the Vergilian antechamber; a kind of natural selection was at work, whereby everyone who hated the Aeneid simply dropped out of the game. (This is certainly what happened with a number of my own students.) I am against the Aeneid mandate, against its lofty canonization, but not against the poem itself; one ought not to be pressed to read it until they are already fully sold on the idea of Latin literature. Vergil may have served as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, but he couldn’t accompany him to Paradise.

Cezanne, Aeneas Meeting Dido (1875)

Horatian Bohemianism

Stendhal, Promenades dans Rome:

There are two ways to see Rome: one can observe everything that they find interesting in one area and then pass on to the another.

Alternatively, one can every morning run after the type of beauty that they find themselves sensitive to when they wake up. It is the second course which we will take. Like true philosophers, we will do whatever strikes us as most agreeable on that day; quam minimum credula postero [trusting as little as possible in tomorrow].

Il y a deux façons de voir Rome: on peut observer tout ce qu’il y a de curieux dans un quartier, et puis passer à un autre.

Ou bien courir chaque matin après le genre de beauté auquel on se trouve sensible en se levant. C’est ce dernier parti que nous prendrons. Comme de vrais philosophes, chaque jour nous ferons ce qui nous semblera le plus agréable ce jour-là; quam minimum credula postero.

Against the Aeneid

nescio quid maius nascitur Iliade.

“Something greater than the Iliad is being born…”


This line of Propertius, hinting at the composition of the Aeneid, has always struck me as violently sarcastic – how could it be otherwise?

Vergil possesses only two virtues: he is a sensitive interpreter of Homer, and he is on occasion capable of delivering a line of eloquence well freighted with pathos. Examples of this latter tendency include everyone’s favorite tags:

en sunt lacrimae rerum
forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit
quae iam terra nostri non plena laboris
facilis descensus Averno
etc. etc.

This places Vergil well in the tradition of Ennius. Donatus records that, when a friend saw Vergil reading Ennius, he asked him what he was doing and Vergil responded, “Looking for pieces of gold in a heap of shit.” Samuel Johnson once suggested of Shakespeare that for all of his fine qualities as a writer, one would be hard pressed to find more than four consecutive lines of good poetry in his plays. Much the same is true of Vergil, which is in part why he serves as such a fruitful source for the isolated quotation and overblown tag; it is also why he is such a painful chore to read.

Over the years, I have been both shocked and appalled to hear a number of my fellow Latin teachers cite Vergil’s Aeneid as their favorite work of Latin literature. What strikes me in particular about their claim to love the Aeneid is the fact that most of them also admit to having never read through the entire poem in Latin. While I am not generally a fan of altitudinal equestrianism I’m afraid that I must place a reluctant foot into the critical stirrup and make the daring suggestion that one cannot properly evaluate a work of art that was designed as an organic unity and survives complete (though unfinished) without having read through the whole of it. As this steed begins to canter along, I will note that I have read the whole poem through twice (and the AP selections several times over) and I can only conclude that Vergil served as Dante’s guide not because of his Christian qualities, not for his foray into subterranean cosmography, but because reading the Aeneid in its entirety offers one a grim foretaste of eternity. Even the most interesting of long form narrative fictions will occasionally get bogged down in longeurs, but an entire half of the poem (Books 7 – 12) is regularly neglected because of its tedium, and even people who make the case for the historical interest of Homer’s Catalogue of Ships would be stumped in their search for reasons to read Book 5 of the Aeneid.

I recently heard it suggested that Aeneas is an interesting and complex character. No one in the history of literature could be less complex than Aeneas. Indeed, he isn’t really even a character so much as an idea. The only figure given less of a personality in the Aeneid is Lavinia. I suggest, rather, that Aeneas is the biggest chump in all of ancient literature. His chief function in the Iliad is simply to almost get himself killed by better heroes (Diomedes, Achilles) in the same way that Paris was rescued in his duel with Menelaus. (It is perhaps not without reason that Iarbas in Book 4 describes Aeneas as ille Paris.) Throughout the Aeneid, all of his important actions are prompted by three things: dreams, prophecies, and direct admonition of the gods. When Hermes comes to tell Aeneas to leave Carthage, he presents the hero with the first thing resembling a real choice: it is implied that he can remain with Dido and grant Ascanius the glory of reaching Italy. Here he does make the choice to abandon Dido and pettily ensure that he, not his son, receives the honor of reconstituting a Hesperian Troy, but instead of fully acknowledging it as a decision, he tells Dido:

“Stop working both of us up with your complaints –
I am not pursuing Italy by choice.”

desine meque tuis incendere teque querelis;
Italiam non sponte sequor.’ [Aeneid 4.360-1]

Complexity? Depth? Hardly. One could see figures like Odysseus and Achilles, for all of their unsavory traits, as proto-existentialist heroes who occasionally transgressed the boundaries of the human, while Aeneas is nothing more than a bland but perfect paragon of Bad Faith.

Vergil has, of course, had his distinguished defenders. Dante, Tennyson, T.S. Eliot. Perhaps, as poets, they can sense something in the Aeneid that I miss, in much the same way that dogs apparently find a particular olfactory pleasure in shit that we humans, being less nasally developed, cannot appreciate. Or perhaps their creative faculties came at the cost of their judgment. For an illustrative example of T.S. Eliot’s painful defects as a literary critic, consider these remarks on Aeneas and Dido in the underworld:

But I have always thought the meeting of Aeneas with the shade of Dido, in Book VI, not only one of the most poignant, but one of the most civilized passages in poetry. It is complex in meaning and economical in expression, for it not only tells us about the attitude of Dido – still more important is what it tells us about the attitude of Aeneas. Dido’s behaviour appears almost as a projection of Aeneas’ own conscience: this, we feel, is the way in which Aeneas’ conscience would expect Dido to behave to him. The point, it seems to me, is not that Dido is unforgiving – though it is important that, instead of railing at him, she merely snubs him – perhaps the most telling snub in all poetry: what matters most is, that Aeneas does not forgive himself – and this, significantly, in spite of the fact of which he is well aware, that all that he has done has been in compliance with destiny, or in consequence of the machinations of the gods who are themselves, we feel, only instruments of a greater inscrutable power. [T.S. Eliot, What is a Classic?]

By contrast, note how Samuel Johnson, who apparently remembers his Homer better than Eliot did, handles the same scene:

The warmest Admirers of the great Mantuan Poet can extol him for little more than the Skill with which he has, by making his Hero both a Traveller and a Warrior, united the Beauties of the Iliad and Odyssey in one Composition; yet his Judgment was perhaps sometimes overborn by his Avarice of the Homeric Treasures, and for fear of suffering a sparkling Ornament to be lost, has inserted it where it cannot shine with its original Splendor. When Ulysses visited the infernal Regions, he found among the Heroes who died at Troy, his Competitor Ajax, who, when the Arms of Achilles were adjudged to Ulysses, died by his own Hand in the Madness of Disappointment. He still appeared to resent, as on Earth, his Loss and Disgrace. Ulysses endeavoured to pacify him with Praises and Submission; but Ajax walked away without Reply. This Passage has always been considered as eminently beautiful, because Ajax the haughty Chief, the unlettered Soldier, of unshaken Courage, of immoveable Constancy, but without the Power of recommending his own Virtues by Eloquence, or enforcing his Assertions by any other Argument than the Sword, had no way of making his Resentment known but by gloomy Sullenness and dumb Ferocity. He therefore naturally showed his Hatred of a Man whom he conceived to have defeated him only by Volubility of Tongue, by Silence more contemptuous and affecting than any Words that so rude an Orator could have found, and which gave his Enemy no Opportunity of exerting the only Power in which he was superior. When Aeneas is sent by Virgil into the Regions below, he meets with Dido the Queen of Carthage, whom his Perfidy had hurried to the Grave; he accosts her with Tenderness and Excuses, but the Lady turns away like Ajax in mute Anger. She turns away like Ajax, but she resembles him in none of those Qualities which give either Dignity or Propriety to Silence. She might, without any Departure from the Tenour of her Conduct, have burst out like other injured Ladies into Clamour, Reproach, and Denunciation; but Virgil had his Imagination full of Ajax, and therefore could not prevail on himself to teach Dido any other Mode of Resentment. [Samuel Johnson, The Rambler No. 121]

Indeed, I find it hard to believe that anyone with more than passing familiarity with Homer could enjoy the Aeneid except in those occasional moments when Vergil manages to provide some special illumination that shows how deeply he himself had drawn from the Homeric well.

I regret to say that I take the shameless hipster line on Vergil: while the Georgics leave me cold for the most part, I am a tremendous admirer of the Eclogues. Indeed, I think that the Eclogues might even outdo their Greek original, Theocritus’ Idylls. This is all to say that I liked Vergil “before he sold out” – before he became a paid pen for the regime. Among the Augustan poets, one gets the sense that Tibullus was content to cultivate his narrow garden; that Horace could toe the line but still carved out some space for genuine feeling and rich humor in much of his poetry; that both Propertius and (especially) Ovid had an anarchic streak that kept them from too deeply internalizing the blandness of the early Principate. These last three are notable for their playfulness (especially Ovid), but with Vergil, poetry is always a grim affair. Indeed, Homer shows signs of real humor in the Iliad and the Odyssey, but once they were passed through the Augustan grinder, they yielded nothing at all that could be considered funny in the Aeneid.

In any event, why all of this harping on about the Aeneid’s defects? Because, as a Latin teacher, I have come to think that we are entirely undermining our mission by forcing this slop upon students every year. The Aeneid is barely worth reading except among true dedicatees of Latin epic – the sort who might also enjoy the Pharsalia or the Thebaid. Naturally, I found it encouraging that the AP Latin syllabus would be revised for next year, dropping Caesar in the process – Caesar, the only popular Latin author more boring than Vergil. Indeed, whatever interest students may have had in the Aeneid in all of the years that I have taught the AP syllabus, it has come primarily from the fact that he affords some relief from the drudgery of Caesar, in much the same way that being kicked in the ass might afford some relief from being repeatedly punched in the face.

I began studying Latin for its literature – for its humor, its wit, its humanity. When I began bashing the books pretty seriously and grinding out those declension tables, I would have given up if I thought that the incentive at the end of it was simply to read the Aeneid. Almost none of my students express an interest in exploring Latin literature after being hammered by Vergil and Caesar because it suggests that what they always suspected of Latin is indeed true: that it is stodgy, narrow, and boring. I grant that Latin programs are struggling for a number of complicated reasons, but students talk to each other and relay these messages down the line to younger kids – most of them have already heard how boring the AP Latin syllabus is before they even arrive in Latin I.

Maybe, to save Latin, we ought to abandon our commitment to dreary horseshit and embrace some literature with real life and vitality in it. The move to Pliny away from Caesar is a good start, but how about a wholesale makeover, a shift entirely away from narrow classicism? The Late Republic and Early Empire are all interesting in their way, but what of the fact that this literature constitutes an infinitesimal portion of our extant Latin literature? Whatever happened to Plautus and Terence? Why do we affect such disdain for Medieval Latin, some of which is simultaneously easy for students to read with a sense of fluency and has real human interest?

At any rate, I submit that students will never be excited about our programs as long as they terminate with a capstone course in such a miserable piece of third-tier art and will never be excited about Latin when all they see in it is the tedious droning of Augustan sentiment.

Humanities Thirst Trap

John Donne, Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (XVIII):

When I must shipwrack, I would do it in a Sea, where mine impotencie might have some excuse; not in a sullen weedy lake, where I could not have so much as exercise for my swimming. Therefore I would fain do something; but that I cannot tell what, is no wonder. For to chuse, is to do: but to be no part of any body, is to be nothing. At most, the greatest persons, are but great wens, and excrescences; men of wit and delightfull conversation, but as moalls for ornament, except they be so incorporated into the body of the world, that they contribute something to the sustentation of the whole. This I made account that I begun early, when I understood the study of our laws: but was diverted by the worst voluptuousnes, which is an Hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning and languages: beautifull ornaments to great fortunes; but mine needed an occupation, and a course which I thought I entred well into, when I submitted my self to such a service, as I thought might imploy those poor advantages, which I had. And there I stumbled too, yet I would try again: for to this hour I am nothing, or so little, that I am scarce subject and argument good enough for one of mine own letters: yet I fear, that doth not ever proceed from a good root, that I am so well content to be lesse, that is dead.

Free Speech Freeze

S.F. Bonner

Roman Declamation in the Late Republic and Early Empire (Chp. 2)

Under the Republic, oratory had been essential for success in public life, and the whole subject was alive and keenly debated; but under the principate it had lost much of its political value. It was not so much that the courts had lost a great deal of their power; there were still civil and criminal cases to attract the advocate. It was rather the lack of assured success in public life,
which the good orator in Republican days could naturally expect. Under the principate, so much depended upon Imperial and Court patronage; and it became necessary to choose one’s words rather too carefully when speaking in public for the practice to be a popular one. Writing under Tiberius (if not Caligula) the elder Seneca could look back upon the Augustan Age as a time when there was ‘so much liberty of speech’; but even then that freedom which the author of the Dialogues and the philosopher in Longinus consider so essential for good oratory, was fast disappearing from Roman public life.

And so oratory betook itself to the safer arena of the schools, where a man might air his Republicanism without fear of consequences, and where one might be recompensed for the loss of political prestige by the plaudits of one’s fellow-citizens. The term scholastica came into vogue – a ‘school oration’ as opposed to the genuine public speech, and the exponents of these display-speeches became known as ‘schoolmen’ – scholastici.

Clovis Loves Killing

Gregory of Tours, Histories 2.42:

Clovis however came and made war against Ragnachar. Ragnachar, seeing that his army had been defeated, prepared to slip away, but as he was doing so he was captured by his army, had his hands tied behind his back, and was brought before Clovis along with his brother Ricchar. Clovis addressed him thus: “Why did you humiliate our people by letting them tie you up? It would have been better for you to die.” Raising the axe, he fixed it into his head, and turning to his brother he said, “If you had granted your brother some solace, he would not at any rate have been bound up” and killed him with a similar blow of the axe.

After their deaths, the men who had betrayed them learned that the gold which they had received from the king was adulterated. When they complained of this to the king himself, he responded, “Rightly does one receive such gold when they lead their master to death by their own choice.” He added that it ought to be enough for them to live on that they would not atone for the betrayal of their master by dying under torture. When they heard this, they decided to take the hint and the favor, claiming that it was indeed enough for them if they were allowed to live.

There were however relations of the king mentioned earlier: their brother, named Rignomeris, was killed in the city of Mans on the orders of Clovis. After their deaths, Clovis received all of their kingdoms and all of their treasure. Once all of these and many other kings had been killed along with his nearest relations (who, he feared, might take his kingdom away from him), he extended his reign over all of Gaul. Then he gathered all of his people together at once and he said to have spoken about his relations, whom he killed, in this way: “Ah, pity me, I who remain as a stranger in a strange land and have no relatives who could help me if I were faced with some adversity!” He said this not to grieve over their deaths, but to lay a trap to see whether he might find someone else whom he could kill.

Veniens autem Chlodovechus, bellum contra eum instruit. At ille devictum cernens exercitum suum, fuga labi parat, sed ab exercitum conpraehensus ac ligatis postergum manibus in conspectu Chlodovechi una cum Richario fratre suo perducetur. Cui ille: ‘Cur’, inquid, ‘humiliasti genus nostrum, ut te vincere permitteris? Melius enim tibi fuerat mori’. Et elevatam securem capite eius defixit, conversusque ad fratrem eius, ait: ‘Si tu solatium fratri tribuissis, allegatus utique non fuisset’; similiter et hunc secure percussum interfecit.

Post quorum mortem cognuscent proditores eorum, aurum, quod a regi acceperant, esse adulterum. Quod cum rege dixissent, ille respondisse fertur: ‘Merito’, inquid, ‘tale aurum accepit, qui domino suo ad mortem propria voluntate deducit’; hoc illis quod viverent debere sufficere, ne male proditionem dominorum suorum luituri inter tormenta deficerent. Quod ille audientes, optabant gratiam adipisci, illud sibi adserentes sufficere, si vivere mererentur. Fuerunt autem supradicti regis propinqui huius; quorum frater Rignomeris nomen apud Cinomannis civitatem ex iusso Chlodovechi est interfectus. Quibus mortuis, omnem regnum eorum et thesaurus Chlodovechus accepit. Interfectisque et aliis multis regibus vel parentibus suis primis, de quibus zelum habebat, ne ei regnum auferrent, regnum suum per totas Gallias dilatavit. Tamen, congregatis suis quadam vice, dixisse fertur de parentibus, quos ipse perdiderat: ‘Vae mihi, qui tamquam peregrinus inter extraneus remansi et non habeo de parentibus, qui mihi, si venerit adversitas, possit aliquid adiuvare’. Sed hoc non de morte horum condolens, sed dolo dicebat, si forte potuisset adhuc aliquem repperire, ut interficeret.

Disappointing Delphic Demands

Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker (4):

Among the tiny number of books that I sometimes read again, Plutarch is the one that ropes me in and does me the most good. He was the first thing I read in childhood, and he will be the last thing I read in my old age. He is pretty much the only author that I have never read without drawing some benefit. Just the other day I was reading in his Moralia the essay How One Can Profit from One’s Enemies. That same day, flipping through some pamphlets that were sent to me by various authors, I happened upon one of the journals of the abbé Royou, in the title of which he had added these words: vitam vero impendenti, Royou. Being too experienced in the ways of these gentlemen to be duped by this crap, I understood that through this air of politeness he thought that I had told some cruel lie; but what was this founded on? What was up with this sarcasm? What reason could I have given him for it? In order to gain some profit from the lessons of the good Plutarch, I resolved to busy myself in examining this lie the next day, and I became totally confirmed in the opinion that I had formed earlier: that the maxim Know Thyself at the temple of Delphi was not so easy to follow as I had thought when I wrote my Confessions.

Dans le petit nombre de livres que je lis quelquefois encore, Plutarque est celui qui m’attache et me profite le plus. Ce fut la première lecture de mon enfance, ce sera la dernière de ma vieillesse; c’est presque le seul auteur que je n’ai jamais lu sans en tirer quelque fruit. Avant-hier, je lisois dans ses œuvres morales le traité Comment on pourra tirer utilité de ses ennemis. Le même jour, en rangeant quelques brochures qui m’ont été envoyées par les auteurs, je tombai sur un des journaux de l’abbé Royou, au titre duquel il avoit mis ces paroles: vitam vero impendenti, Royou. Trop au fait des tournures de ces messieurs pour prendre le change sur celle-là, je compris qu’il avoit cru sous cet air de politesse me dire une cruelle contre-vérité; mais sur quoi fondé? Pourquoi ce sarcasme? Quel sujet y pouvois-je avoir donné? Pour mettre à profit les leçons du bon Plutarque, je résolus d’employer à m’examiner sur le mensonge la promenade du lendemain, et j’y vins bien confirmé dans l’opinion déjà prise que le Connois-toi toi-même du temple de Delphes n’étoit pas une maxime si facile à suivre que je l’avois cru dans mes Confessions.

A/Non Anonymous

H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: a-, an-:

a-, an-, not or without. Punctilious word-making requires that these should be prefixed only to Greek stems; of such compounds there are some hundreds, whereas Latin-stemmed words having any currency even in scientific use do not perhaps exceed half a dozen. There are the botanical ascapular and acaulous, the biological asexual and acaudate, and the literary amoral. This last being literary, there is the less excuse for its having been preferred to the more orthodox non-moral. Amoral is a novelty whose progress has been rapid. In 1888, the OED called it a nonce-word, but in 1933 full recognition had to be conceded. These words should not be treated as precedents for future word-making.

fowler on pedantry and purism