“When the spirit is worn out and begins to hate a benefit while it waits for it, is it possible to still be grateful? Just as it is the most bitter cruelty which makes a punishment last longer and that killing quickly is a kind of mercy since torment supplies its own final end and the time which comes before death is the greatest period of suffering, so too gratitude for a gift will be greater the shorter the duration of suspense.
For the expectation of good things is upsetting too and since most gifts bring relief from some kind of thing, if anyone allows someone else to be tortured for a while when he was able to free him of burden or if he is slow to rejoice, he has added a punitive slap to his good deed. All generosity should move quickly—someone who acts quickly is someone who acts voluntarily. If someone drags his feet day to day, he does not act according to his spirit. He has thus lost two precious things: time and the demonstration of willing friendship. Consenting slowly is an indication of someone who is unwilling.”
Ubi in taedium adductus animus incipit beneficium odisse, dum expectat, potest ob id gratus esse? Quemadmodum acerbissima crudelitas est, quae trahit poenam, et misericordiae genus est cito occidere, quia tormentum ultimum finem sui secum adfert, quod antecedit tempus, maxima venturi supplicii pars est, ita maior est muneris gratia, quo minus diu pependit. Est enim etiam bonarum rerum sollicita expectatio, et cum plurima beneficia remedium alicuius rei adferant, qui aut diutius torqueri patitur, quem protinus potest liberare, aut tardius gaudere, beneficio suo manus adfert. Omnis benignitas properat, et proprium est libenter facientis cito facere; qui tarde et diem de die extrahens profuit, non ex animo fecit. Ita duas res maximas perdidit, et tempus et argumentum amicae voluntatis; tarde velle nolentis est.
“It is amazing how the schedule is or seems on individual days in the city when they all blend together. If you ask anyone “what did you do today?” He may say, “I went to a toga-ceremony, an engagement, or a marriage. I was the witness at a will-signing, or at court as a witness or supporter.” These things which you do seem necessary on the day that you do them but empty if you remember that you have done the same kind of things every day and they seem even sillier if you consider them when you are away.
Then the realization comes over you: “How many days have I wasted in trivial pursuits!” This occurs to me whenever I am reading or writing or taking some time to exercise, to keep my mind fit for my work, at my Laurentum. I hear nothing and I say nothing which later on it hurts me that I said or heard. No one troubles me with evil rumors. I find no one to blame but myself when I write with too little ease. I am troubled by no hope, no fear; I am disrupted by no gossip. I speak only with myself and my little books.
What a fine and sincere life! What sweet and honest leisure, finer than nearly any business at all. The sea, the beach, my own true and private museum—how much you discover for me, how much you have told me!
Take the first chance you can to leave that noise, the empty conversation, and so many useless tasks and dedicate yourself to studies or relaxing. For our friend Atilius put it most elegantly and intelligently when he said “it is better to do engage in leisure than to do nothing.”
Plinius Minicio Fundano Suo S.
1Mirum est quam singulis diebus in urbe ratio aut constet aut constare videatur, pluribus iunctisque
Nam si quem interroges “Hodie quid egisti?,” respondeat: “Officio togae virilis interfui, sponsalia aut nuptias frequentavi, ille me ad signandum testamentum, ille in advocationem, ille in 3 consilium rogavit.” Haec quo die feceris, necessaria, eadem, si cotidie fecisse te reputes, inania videntur, multo magis cum secesseris. Tunc enim subit recordatio: “Quot dies quam frigidis rebus absumpsi!” 4 Quod evenit mihi, postquam in Laurentino meo aut lego aliquid aut scribo aut etiam corpori vaco, cuius fulturis animus sustinetur. Nihil audio quod audisse, nihil dico quod dixisse paeniteat; nemo apud me quemquam sinistris sermonibus carpit, neminem ipse reprehendo, nisi tamen me cum parum commode scribo; nulla spe nullo timore sollicitor, nullis rumoribus inquietor: mecum tantum et cum libellis loquor. O rectam sinceramque vitam! O dulce otium honestumque ac paene omni negotio pulchrius! O mare, o litus, verum secretumque μουσεῖον, quam multa invenitis, quam multa dictatis! 7 Proinde tu quoque strepitum istum inanemque discursum et multum ineptos labores, ut primum fuerit occasio, relinque teque studiis vel otio trade. 8 Satius est enim, ut Atilius noster eruditissime simul et facetissime dixit, otiosum esse quam nihil agere. Vale.
“You deny that anything is possible without god. Look, here Strato from Lampascus interrupts to grant immunity to that god of yours, however big the task. And, since the gods’ priests get a vacation, it is so much fairer that the gods do too!
Anyway, Strato denies that he needs to use divine actions to create the universe: whatever exists—he teaches—comes from natural causes. He does not, however, follow the one who argues that [the world] was put together out of rough and smooth, hook-shaped or crooked atoms separated by void. He believes that these are dreams of Democritus not as he teaches but as he imagines things. Strato himself, as he outlines the components of the universe in order, insists that whatever is or develops emerges from or was made by natural means, through gravity and motion.
Thus he frees the god of great labor and me of fear. For, once they imagine that some deity is worrying about them, who wouldn’t shudder at divine power day and night and, when anything bad happens—for who avoids such things?—wouldn’t fear that it happened because of some negative judgment? Still, I don’t agree with Strato nor, to be honest, with you. Sometimes his idea seems more likely, at other times yours does.”
 Negas sine deo posse quicquam: ecce tibi e transverso Lampsacenus Strato, qui det isti deo inmunitatem — magni quidem muneris; sed cum sacerdotes deorum vacationem habeant, quanto est aequius habere ipsos deos —: negat opera deorum se uti ad fabricandum mundum, quaecumque sint docet omnia effecta esse natura, nec ut ille qui asperis et levibus et hamatis uncinatisque corporibus concreta haec esse dicat interiecto inani: somnia censet haec esse Democriti non docentis sed optantis, ipse autem singulas mundi partes persequens quidquid aut sit aut fiat naturalibus fieri aut factum esse docet ponderibus et motibus. ne ille et deum opere magno liberat et me timore. quis enim potest, cum existimet curari se a deo, non et dies et noctes divinum numen horrere et si quid adversi acciderit, quod cui non accidit, extimescere ne id iure evenerit? nee Stratoni tamen adsentior nec vero tibi; modo hoc modo illud probabilius videtur.’
“For comedy—which can provide a great deal to eloquence since it works through every character and feeling—I will explain soon what purpose I think it serves for students in its own place. For, once characters are safely formed, comedy is among the most important things to read. I am speaking of Menander, but I will not bar the others, for the Latin authors also provide some utility.
Students must first read texts which especially nourish the intelligence and strengthen the character. A long life will give them time for the rest of the works which are good mainly for intellectual reasons. The older Latin poets, moreover, who are mostly effective for their innate ability rather than their skill, can offer a lot—especially for building a great vocabulary. One can find a seriousness in their tragedies and in their comedies an elegance and a certain Attic nature. Their compositions are more considered, too, than modern authors who think that the only virtue of writing is its “quotability”. A high register and, if I may say, a kind of power must be found in these authors since we have now stumbled into the vices of pleasure in our manner of speaking too. And, finally, we should lean on the best orators who take from the poems of the ancients to strengthen their claims or decorate their speaking”
Comoediae, quae plurimum conferre ad eloquentiam potest, cum per omnis et personas et adfectus eat, quem usum in pueris putem paulo post suo loco dicam: nam cum mores in tuto fuerint, inter praecipua legenda erit. De Menandro loquor, nec tamen excluserim alios, nam Latini quoque auctores adferent utilitatis aliquid; sed pueris quae maxime ingenium alant atque animum augeant praelegenda: ceteris, quae ad eruditionem modo pertinent, longa aetas spatium dabit. Multum autem veteres etiam Latini conferunt, quamquam plerique plus ingenio quam arte valuerunt, in primis copiam verborum: quorum in tragoediis gravitas, in comoediis elegantia et quidam velut atticismos inveniri potest. Oeconomia quoque in iis diligentior quam in plerisque novorum erit, qui omnium operum solam virtutem sententias putaverunt. Sanctitas certe et, ut sic dicam, virilitas ab iis petenda est, quando nos in omnia deliciarum vitia dicendi quoque ratione defluximus. Denique credamus summis oratoribus, qui veterum poemata vel ad fidem causarum vel ad ornamentum eloquentiae adsumunt.
“Get your money out and get ready for premium story—really, stories, since the new one reminds me of others and there’s no difference in where I begin.
The widow of Piso—the one Galba adopted—was really sick. And who arrived on the spot, but Regulus! The first class crudeness of a man who visited her sick bed when he was her husband’s greatest foe and a terrible sight to her too. It’s enough that he visited, but he sat right next to her bed and asked her what day and hour she was born in! When he listened, he made a serious face, he looked straight at her while he moving his lips and counting up numbers on his fingers. Nothing after that.
After he left her in suspense, waiting for a while, he said, “You are in a climactic period, but you will survive. Still, to relieve you of anxiety, I will consult a fortune-teller whom I use from time to time.” Then, he immediately made a sacrifice and confirmed that the entrails are aligned with the star signs.
Already thinking her life was endangered, Verania asked for an amendment to her will, and added Regulus as a heir. Immediately, she got sicker and as she died she accused the evil, treacherous man, worse than the perjurer who swore an oath on the safety of his son.
Regulus does stuff no less criminal than this with some frequency, an act to enrage the gods whom he evades on a daily basis and leaves for his miserable son to worry about.
Veleius Blaesus, that wealthy ex-consul was derising to change his will too. Regulus, hoping for something from the new accounting, because he had recently begun to court Velleius, was begging the doctors to give just a little more time to the man. After the will was signed, well he changed his face, and turned to attack the same doctors, by saying “Why do you torture a miserable man? Why do you deprive him of an easy death when you can’t give him life?” Blaesus dies, perhaps he heard it all, and didn’t leave Regulus even a little.
Are two tales enough, or do you want to follow that academic law of three? There’s more where that came from. Aurelia bought the most beautiful clothes and was all dressed up for signing her will. When Regulus showed up for the event, he asked, “Will you leave these clothes to me?” And Aurelia thinks he’s joking. Of course, he insists, seriously. To cut to the chase, he forced the woman to unseal the will and add the very tunic she was wearing to the list, all while watching her write to make sure she had done it. Aurelia is still alive today, but he acted as if she were about to die. And this ‘inheritor’ gets his bequests and acts as if he earned them.
“But why get bothered” about this when I live in a country where wickedness and dishonesty have long earned the same—or even greater—rewards as shame and honor? Just look at Regulus who has climbed from poverty and nowhere to such great wealth on sinful steps that he actually told me that, when he was trying to figure out when he would be worth 60 million he found a double set of entrails implying that he would have twice as much!
So he will have it, that most immoral crook, if he continues as he started, dictating other poeple’s wills when they are most desperate to make them.”
Assem para et accipe auream fabulam, fabulas immo; nam me priorum nova admonuit, nec refert a qua potissimum incipiam. Verania Pisonis graviter iacebat, huius dico Pisonis, quem Galba adoptavit. Ad hanc Regulus venit. Primum impudentiam hominis, qui venerit ad aegram, cuius marito inimicissimus, ipsi invisissimus fuerat! Esto, si venit tantum; at ille etiam proximus toro sedit, quo die qua hora nata esset interrogavit. Ubi audiit, componit vultum intendit oculos movet labra, agitat digitos computat. Nihil. Ut diu miseram exspectatione suspendit, “Habes” inquit “climactericum tempus sed evades. Quod ut tibi magis liqueat, haruspicem consulam, quem sum frequenter expertus.” Nec mora, sacrificium facit, adfirmat exta cum siderum significatione congruere. Illa ut in periculo credula poscit codicillos, legatum Regulo scribit. Mox ingravescit, clamat moriens hominem nequam perfidum ac plus etiam quam periurum, qui sibi per salutem filii peierasset. Facit hoc Regulus non minus scelerate quam frequenter, quod iram deorum, quos ipse cotidie fallit, in caput infelicis pueri detestatur.
Velleius Blaesus ille locuples consularis novissima valetudine conflictabatur: cupiebat mutare testamentum. Regulus qui speraret aliquid ex novis tabulis, quia nuper captare eum coeperat, medicos hortari rogare, quoquo modo spiritum homini prorogarent. Postquam signatum est testamentum, mutat personam, vertit adlocutionem isdemque medicis: “Quousque miserum cruciatis? quid invidetis bona morte, cui dare vitam non potestis?” Moritur Blaesus et, tamquam omnia audisset, Regulo ne tantulum quidem.
Sufficiunt duae fabulae, an scholastica lege tertiam poscis? est unde fiat. Aurelia ornata femina signatura testamentum sumpserat pulcherrimas tunicas. Regulus cum venisset ad signandum, “Rogo” inquit “has mihi leges.” Aurelia ludere hominem putabat, ille serio instabat; ne multa, coegit mulierem aperire tabulas ac sibi tunicas quas erat induta legare; observavit scribentem, inspexit an scripsisset. Et Aurelia quidem vivit, ille tamen istud tamquam morituram coegit. Et hic hereditates, hic legata quasi mereatur accipit.
Ἀλλὰ τί διατείνομαι in ea civitate, in qua iam pridem non minora praemia, immo maiora nequitia et improbitas quam pudor et virtus habent? Adspice Regulum, qui ex paupere et tenui ad tantas opes per flagitia processit, ut ipse mihi dixerit, cum consuleret quam cito sestertium sescentiens impleturus esset, invenisse se exta duplicia, quibus portendi miliens et ducentiens habiturum. Et habebit, si modo ut coepit, aliena testamenta, quod est improbissimum genus falsi, ipsis quorum sunt illa dictaverit. Vale.
“Who do you think you are?! You agree to come do dinner…but you don’t come? The judgment is passed: You must pay my cost to a penny, and this is not moderate. All was set out: a lettuce for each, three snails, two eggs, wine with honey chilled with snow—for you should include this too among the highest expense since it dissolves on the plate—and there were olives, beets, pickles, onions and countless other things no less neat.
You would have heard a comedy or a reader or a singer of all of them, given my generosity. But you went where I don’t know, preferring oysters, a sow’s belly, sea-urchins, and Spanish dancers. You will suffer for this, somehow, believe me. You did something bad to one of us, certainly to me, but perhaps to yourself too. How much we played, laughed, and studied! You might eat better food at many homes, but nowhere will you eat so enjoyably, simply, and freely. In sum: try me: and if later you don’t excuse yourself from another’s meal, you can always lie to me again. Goodbye!”
Plinius Septicio Claro Suo S.
Heus tu! promittis ad cenam, nec venis? Dicitur ius: ad assem impendium reddes, nec id modicum. Paratae erant lactucae singulae, cochleae ternae, ova bina, halica cum mulso et nive (nam hanc quoque computabis, immo hanc in primis quae perit in ferculo), olivae betacei cucurbitae bulbi, alia mille non minus lauta. Audisses comoedos vel lectorem vel lyristen vel (quae mea liberalitas) omnes. At tu apud nescio quem ostrea vulvas echinos Gaditanas maluisti. Dabis poenas, non dico quas. Dure fecisti: invidisti, nescio an tibi, certe mihi, sed tamen et tibi. Quantum nos lusissemus risissemus studuissemus! Potes adparatius cenare apud multos, nusquam hilarius simplicius incautius. In summa experire, et nisi postea te aliis potius excusaveris, mihi semper excusa. Vale.
The title of this post will most likely strike the reader as nonsensical. The canon of Graeco-Roman art, populated with statues of athletes, friezes of battles, a Pompeian fresco or two of dancing fauns, seems to leave no space for abstraction. Most of us think of classical art as uniformly figurative, and we perceive this mimetic tradition as unbroken until the nineteenth century, when experimental figures like J. M. W. Turner begin to display an ever-lesser interest in the minute reproduction of the visually perceptible world.
The likes of Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, it is commonly thought, deal the final blow to the formerly unchallenged tradition of representational art as they start to paint pure abstractions, art bearing no trace of reference to anything recognizable. This straightforward narrative of linear development is challenged in a striking story told by Pliny in his Natural History. In a fascinating anecdote, surprisingly little-known given the extraordinary evidence it presents, Pliny introduces us to the world’s first abstract painting, composed by the celebrated painters Apelles and Protogenes in the fourth century BC.
The story goes as follows. Apelles, the most accomplished painter of all time according to Pliny, once visited the studio of the likewise respected Protogenes, curious to see the works he had so far only heard rumors of. He found nobody there except an old slave and an empty canvas ready for painting. Instead of telling the slave to inform Protogenes of his arrival, Apelles simply drew an exquisitely fine line on the empty canvas and left. When Protogenes returned and examined the line, he instantly knew that Apelles had been there, as only he could have drawn something that perfect.
In reply, Protogenes drew an even finer line in different color upon the previous one and went out again. Soon, Apelles returned and found himself surpassed in Protogenes’ reply. He took up another color and drew an even finer, barely discernible line upon the previous two, leaving no space for anything more delicate to be executed, and left. At this point, Protogenes conceded defeat and went out in search of Apelles to finally make his acquaintance. Left behind in the studio was a piece of abstract art.
So far, there is nothing exceptional in this story. The Natural History is full of such more or less believable anecdotes of artistic dexterity. Pliny, marvelling at the extraordinary verisimilitude in the finest examples of realist painting, relates how horses would neigh when confronted with Apelles’ painting of a horse, and how birds would peck at Zeuxis’ likeness of grapes. Apelles’ Pollock-like technique of throwing a wet sponge at his canvas to create the effect of foam sounds more unorthodox, yet ultimately results in a meticulously realistic reproduction of the recognizable world as well.
Apelles’ and Protogenes’ painting makes no such attempt at mimesis. This would still be nothing surprising in a mere display of artistic skill, and so far the story has not suggested that the painters perceived their competition as anything more. But in a tantalizing twist at the end, Pliny recounts how Apelles and Protogenes thought it appropriate to treat this exercise as a finished work of art, and how it was displayed to an admiring and appreciative public, even only recently at the Imperial palace on the Palatine:
Among the most elaborate works it had all the appearance of a blank space; and yet by that very fact it attracted the notice of everyone, and was held in higher estimation than any other painting there.
audio … [tabulam] spatiose nihil aliud continentem quam lineas visum effugientes, inter egregia multorum opera inani similem et eo ipso allicientem omnique opere nobiliorem. Naturalis Historia 35.36.83
Although the fame of the artists and the virtuosity manifest in the minuteness of the lines must have contributed to the painting’s charm, these features were not of most interest to the ancient audience according to Pliny. It was rather the very emptiness of the painting that was admired, and it was its very blankness that earned it the estimation as the finest piece of art in the exquisite Imperial collection. The abstract composition was clearly perceived as art. The three solitary lines were weighed with reference to the surrounding figurative pieces and chosen as the finest among them. The spectators perceived the abstract, non-representational piece as capable of giving the same kind of aesthetic pleasure as the figurative art they were used to, and they even found the pleasure derived from contemplating this absence of presence in some way superior. For a modern reader, this anecdote conjures up the extraordinary image of ancient Romans crowding around and admiring a minimalist abstract painting, oblivious of the surrounding portraits of gods and goddesses.
Unsurprisingly, the story of Apelles and Protogenes’ experiment did not gain particular traction with early modern artists. Its oddity and simplicity provided little opportunity for opulent classicising compositions and were for a long time overshadowed by tales such as Apelles’ painting and falling in love with Alexander’s mistress Campaspe, subject of numerous renaissance and baroque nudes. One may expect a sudden surge of interest in the anecdote to appear with the emergence of abstract art, yet it does not seem to have resonated with early avantgardists except Guillaume Apollinaire.
In a short 1912 article, Apollinaire writes on the elusiveness of the subject in cubist art and calls this absence of representation ‘pure painting’, providing admirers with ‘artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades and independent of the subject depicted in the picture’. He finds a precedent of such practice in the piece by Apelles and Protogenes, yet nevertheless calls cubism ‘an entirely new plastic art’, apparently uninterested in tracing continuities and eager to portray the avantgarde as a revolutionary breakthrough.
Apollinaire was right in not ascribing too much weight to Pliny’s story and treating it as nothing more than a fascinating curiosity. The painting by Apelles and Protogenes was an isolated case rather than an example of a flourishing abstract tradition in ancient Greek art. The fame of the artists and the ancient admiration of finesse must have been pivotal in enabling this extraordinary, one-off abstract exhibition.
Yet this does not mean that we should not take the story seriously. Rather, it can serve as a reminder that simplistic, traditionalist narratives often overlook the most fascinating details, in the case of art history negating the variety and diversity of artistic expression. Western artbooks skimp over the striking impressionism of Song Dynasty splashed-ink paintings, preceding Turner’s first works by over half a millennium. Women like Georgiana Houghton and Hilma af Klint painted pure abstractions before Kandinsky and Malevich but still gain little recognition for their work. Just so, visitors to the Imperial palace were capable of enjoying ‘artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades’ long before the first cubist exhibition.
Alex Tadel is a recent graduate from an MSt in Greek and Latin Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. Stationed in Ljubljana, Slovenia, she is taking a short break from academia and working as a freelance writer, researcher and tutor.
“Is the reason your letters have not come for so long because everything is going well? Or, is everything good but you are really busy? Or are you not that busy but just have barely any time for writing?
Please take this worry away from me, I can’t handle it! Do it even if you have to send a courier. I will pay the cost and top him too as long as he tells me what I want.
I am well, if to be well is to live in suspense and worry, expecting all day long and fearing that anything which can hurt a person as happened to my dearest friend.”
Plinius Iulio Serviano Suo S.
1Rectene omnia, quod iam pridem epistulae tuae cessant? an omnia recte, sed occupatus es tu? an tu non occupatus, sed occasio scribendi vel rara vel nulla? Exime hunc mihi scrupulum, cui par esse non possum, exime autem vel data opera tabellario misso. Ego viaticum, ego etiam praemium dabo, nuntiet modo quod opto. Ipse valeo, si valere est suspensum et anxium vivere, exspectantem in horas timentemque pro capite amicissimo, quidquid accidere homini potest. Vale.
“Even if some god should permit that I would return to the time of my birth from this age, I would sternly refuse–for, truly, I do not wish to restart as if to retrace a race run from the finish line to the starting post.
What attraction does life have? Or, rather, what labor does it lack? Let it have clear charm–even still, it must have either satiety or a conclusion. It is not my purpose to deplore life as many–even learned men–have often done. And I do not regret that I have lived, because I lived in a such a way that I do not believe I was pointlessly born. And I am leaving life as if from an inn, not a home. For nature has given us a way-station for a brief delay, not to permanently reside.”
Et si quis deus mihi largiatur ut ex hac aetate repuerascam et in cunis vagiam, valde recusem, nec vero velim quasi decurso spatio ad carceres a calce revocari. Quid habet enim vita commodi? Quid non potius laboris? Sed habeat sane; habet certe tamen aut satietatem aut modum. Non libet enim mihi deplorare vitam, quod multi et ei docti saepe fecerunt, neque me vixisse paenitet, quoniam ita vixi, ut non frustra me natum existimem, et ex vita ita discedo tamquam ex hospitio, non tamquam e domo; commorandi enim natura divorsorium nobis, non habitandi dedit.
This last bit made me think of Lucretius:
De Rerum Natura, 3.970-971
“Thus one thing never ceases to arise from another,
and life is given to no one for ownership, but to all for rent.”
sic aliud ex alio numquam desistet oriri
vitaque mancipio nulli datur, omnibus usu
“But now the people—in defense of their own wickedness—act against reason indeed. And so, as unstable fancy flits full circle, that same thing happens as in elections in which those who selected people for office are also shocked that those very people are in office!
We approve the same things we criticize! This is the outcome of every judgment which gives preference to the majority.”
Nunc vero stat contra rationem defensor mali sui populus. Itaque id evenit quod in comitiis, in quibus eos factos esse praetores idem qui fecere mirantur, cum se mobilis favor circumegit. Eadem probamus, eadem reprehendimus; hic exitus est omnis iudicii, in quo secundum plures datur.