Saturday, September 15, 2018

BOOK: Cyriac of Ancona, "Life and Early Travels"

Cyriac of Ancona: Life and Early Travels. Edited and translated by Charles Mitchell, Edward W. Bodnar and Clive Foss. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 65. Harvard University Press, 2015. 9780674599208. xxii + 375 pp.

Cyriac was an early-15th-century author who travelled widely through Italy and the eastern Mediterranean, partly for business but partly also because he made a hobby of recording and sketching the ancient inscriptions and monuments that he found in the places he visited. This is the second book about him in the I Tatti Renaissance Library; I read the previous one, the Later Travels, many years ago (resulting in one of the first posts I have made on this blog). I enjoyed that book quite a bit, but had no idea that more volumes about Cyriac's travels would be forthcoming. It's probably just as well, otherwise I would have become impatient considering that 12 years passed between the previous volume and the current one. According to the translator's introduction (p. xviii and note 26), they are hoping to eventually publish a third volume as well, covering the middle part of Cyriac's life.

The Life of Cyriac

About half of the present volume is taken up by a biography of Cyriac written by his friend and fellow citizen of Ancona, Francesco Scalamonti (p. viii). Much of it is based on Cyriac's own diaries. It covers only the earlier parts of Cyriac's life, reaching up to 1435 before ending unusually abruptly; perhaps the biographer lost interest or something like that. In any case, I found this biography fairly interesting, especially as I didn't remember anything much of Cyriac's life from the previous volume, the Later Travels (either because not that much is said about his life there, or because I have forgotten everything about it anyway).

His interest in travels started early, and his grandfather took him along to some of his journeys to Venice, Naples and the like (¶5–11). Cyriac clearly had quite an aptitude for business; he got apprenticed to a rich merchant from Ancona (¶14) as a child and eventually became his trusted assistant that basically ran his whole business for a while. He was also entrusted with some fairly notable administrative roles in the city government at an unusually early age, and occasionally held similar posts in later years as well (¶14–15, 47, 61).

It is always delightful and impressive when someone manages to transcend a commercial background and take up more intellectual interests, and Cyriac is a wonderful example of that. His upbringing had been so practical that they hadn't even taught him Latin, and he ended up learning it by himself, mostly it seems by sheer stubborness, studying Virgil's poetry until it started to make sense (¶53; see also p. xiii). I guess he did have an advantage in the fact that Italian is a fairly closely related language to Latin, and I suppose this method wouldn't work so well for speakers of non-Romance languages. Anyway, judging by the occasional remarks by the translators, his Latin was perhaps a bit shaky but otherwise functional enough. Later he also learned Greek. He also had an interest in Italian poetry, and the earlier parts of the biography include a sort of correspondence in verse, numerous sonnets written to and by Cyriac, mostly in Italian (¶24–30, 49–52).

Most of the travels we see in the Life of Cyriac in this book are around Italy, rather than to the more distant and exotic countries that we saw him visiting in the Later Travels. Nevertheless he also travels to Byzantium in the present book, ¶37–43; to Syria and Cyprus, ¶63–73, and then to Greece again ¶74–90. We find him hunting panthers with the king of Cyprus (¶70; I didn't think there were still panthers there at the time), lobbying pope Eugenius for an “expedition against the Turks” (¶92), and sightseeing in Rome with emperor Sigismund, whom Cyriac harangued on the importance of preserving ancient monuments (¶99).

He has the same antiquarian zeal as in the previous volume, and the Life includes numerous ancient inscriptions that he collected in Rome (¶93–4), Milan (¶105–50), Brescia (¶152–64), Verona (¶167–89), Mantua (¶194–7), and so on. A considerable proportion of them are funerary inscriptions, though for the most part I didn't find them terribly touching. Many of them exhibit a curious obsession with preventing the heirs from reusing the memorial, which struck me as a somewhat narrow-minded thing to worry about when designing an inscription for someone's grave; but I suppose it must have made sense to the ancient Romans.

Among the ancient Roman funerary inscriptions recorded by Cyriac there is one from Verona (¶181) that was dedicated by a man to “his well-deserving freedwoman and wife”. This struck me as an intriguing combination; I was glad to see that he freed her and married her, instead of keeping her as a slave and raping her. It's nice to see that these things occasionally have a reasonably happy outcome. Speaking of slavery, we find Cyriac buying “a very intelligent servant girl from Epirus” on “the Turkish slave market in Adrianople” (¶76), intending to send her home to his mother in Ancona, but we don't learn anything about her subsequent fate.

Cyriac's letters

This book also contains a few letters to and from Cyriac on various subjects, which I found much more interesting than I had expected. There's an interesting exchange between Cyriac and Leonardo Bruni (pp. 187–95) commenting on the practice of the Holy Roman (i.e. German) Emperors to get themselves crowned as “King of the Romans” first and then ask the pope to proclaim them Emperor. Our two worthy correspondents take no small joy in sneering at these barbarous and ignorant habits, with Bruni pointing out that the ancient Roman kings and emperors did not even wear crowns (Letter III, ¶9), and, more importantly, that the title of emperor (imperator) is strictly inferior to that of king (rex).

In principle, he has some reasonable arguments for this: an imperator received some sort of military powers, acting under the laws and while many of the other offices of the government continued functioning; and there could be several imperators at the same time. On the other hand, a king was above the law and held all the power to himself, and there could be only one per country at any given time (¶5–7). There is also an argument from transitivity (¶4): a king is higher than a dictator (because Julius Caesar wanted to become a king at a time when he was already a dictator) and that a dictator is higher than an imperator (because the people were offering to make Augustus a dictator at a time when he was already an imperator).

The problem, of course, is that the meaning of words can change over time, so demonstrating that an imperator was an inferior title in the time of Caesar and Augustus doesn't mean that it's the same in the middle ages or the renaissance, so the whole debate struck me as somewhat silly. It's obvious that due to the size of the Roman empire and the power of some of its rulers, the concept of the emperor gradually developed into some sort of claim to almost universal rule, in which an emperor was clearly superior to those other rulers that were just plain old kings. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that one of the reasons why someone like Augustus had little interest in calling himself a king was that the Romans used the same word, rex, for every hairy barbarian chieftain, every Roman client princeling, every tyrant of a city-state, i.e. the sort of rulers that could be found by the dozen in the areas bordering on Augustus' empire. So if anything, Augustus' prestige would be taking a step backwards if he had adopted such a title for himself (not to mention that it would pointlessly provoke some of the Roman public, who still had bad memories of the Etruscan kings that used to rule in Rome in its early years).

There is an interesting letter in which Cyriac defends himself from people who criticized his intense interest in pagan literature and history (pp. 175–85). He mostly does this by pointing out numerous passages in Virgil's poetry that can, if you squint a little, be interpreted in ways that are compatible with christianity. (He also points out that notable early christian authors such as Augustine thought highly of Virgil.) I'm not normally too keen on this sort of after-the-fact interpretation, which could easily degenerate into tendentious quote-mining, but in fact Cyriac does it moderately and playfully, so it was all in good fun. And it is indeed nice to see the easy blend of christian and pagan motifs in his thinking and writing, evidently without the slightest idea that there could be anything objectionable about this (a nice example: he regarded Mercury as “his divine and catholic genius”, i.e. a sort of patron saint;; Life, ¶14 and n. 8 on p. 316).

There are also a couple of letters involving an apparently very heated debate on who was better, Scipio Africanus or Julius Caesar (pp. 197–231). Cyriac's view is that they are both equally good as military commanders, but Caesar gets more merit for his political accomplishments, especially the introduction of monarchy. This provoked a grotesquely insulting letter from Poggio Bracciolini, who seems to have favoured Scipio. This whole thing struck me as gloriously silly — it must have been the renaissance equivalent of comic-book nerds arguing about whether Superman is better than Batman or vice versa. (The translator's preface has a wonderful phrase for it: “the pettiest of antiquarian squabbles”, p. xvi.)

Naval battle of Ponza

This is Cyriac's account of the naval battle of Ponza , in 1435, in which the forces of Milan defeated those of Aragon. As usual with such things, I found the account of the battle somewhat confusing and not particularly interesting. I do, however, like the magnanimous treatment of the captuerd leaders of the defeated side, who were apparently treated very well in Milan and were soon allowed to return home (10.2–3).


As an appendix, the book contains a useful chronology of Cyriac's life; some notes of his that accompanied his sketches of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (the drawings themselves unfortunately do not seem to have survived); Cyriac's notes on the traditional Greek classification of six forms of government; and a few letters to Cyriac from Francesco Filelfo. One is a fairly long discussion of the Aeneid, the others are mostly shorter replies to Cyriac's inquiries, but as they cover a period of several years, they give us a nice look at the progress that Cyriac was making in his classical studies (eventually they reach a point where Filelfo writes to him in Greek instead of Latin, p. 289).

This was a surprisingly interesting book and I'm definitely looking forward to the third one, hopefully in less than 12 years :)

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, August 26, 2018

BOOK: Coluccio Salutati, "Political Writings"

Coluccio Salutati: Political Writings. Edited by Stefano U. Baldassarri, translated by Rolf Bagemihl. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 64. Harvard University Press, 2014. 9780674728677. xxxv + 489 pp.

Selected State Letters

Salutati worked many decades as the chancellor of the Florentine republic, and wrote numerous official letters in this role; apparently almost 7500 are known (p. 397). This section contains nine of them, mostly addressed to various popes, kings, etc. I didn't find them terribly interesting to read, and I thought it would be useful if the notes said more about the context of each letter. I guess most of the recipients were rulers of stronger countries than Florence, therefore Salutati often adopts a sort of whining or supplicating tone, which I didn't like much.

There are some nice rhetorical features from time to time, such as the practice of piling up synonyms in groups of three; from the interesting introduction by editor (p. xxvi, n. 11) I learned that this sort of thing is called a “tricolon” and that many of Salutati's letters must have been meant to be read aloud. My favourite tricolon, in any case, remains ‘no, I haven't stolen, filched or purloined your thesaurus’ :)

One interesting recurring theme in these letters is his animosity towards Giangaleazzo Visconti, duke of Milan, whom he likes to refer to as “the viper” (because of his coat of arms) or, sarcastically, as “the count of Virtue” (because he owned some land around Vertus, France; p. 426, n. 34).

On Tyranny

As Salutati explains in his preface, he wrote this treatise on the request of a student from Padua who wrote to him, praising his learning and asking him whether killing a tyrant is justified and whether it was fair for Dante to put Brutus and Cassius into the lowest circle of hell for their murder of Julius Caesar. Salutati starts with a discussion of the different types of government; his division struck me as somewhat odd and certainly different than what I vaguely remember of ancient Greeks' ideas on the subject. In 1.6, he divides governments into monarchical (the monarch rules on the basis of his own prudence and will), constitutional (the government is constrained by laws) and despotic (“that system of government which is exercised over slaves and beasts” and aims mostly at promoting the owner's property rights). He tries to explain this by a household analogy that sounds hilariously offensive by present-day standards: “The father of a family governs his son monarchically through his affection for him, his wife constitutionally according to the principles of right, but his slaves despotically as being his own property.” (1.7) He says that a tyrant can occur in any system of government and is defined by having no legal right to rule, or by breaking the laws that restrict his powers.

He then argues that it is lawful to kill a tyrant, mostly it seems by analogy with the fact that in private life it is legal to resist an attacker, burglar etc. (2.1). However, I was greatly disappointed by the examples he gave, mostly from early Roman history as reported by Livy and the like. The fine tradition of killing tyrants seems to have in practice been little more than an excuse for Roman noblemen to murder anyone who looked like he wants to do anything good for masses of the people, with the excuse that he must surely be a conniving demagogue who plans to dupe the masses into elevating him to tyranny. They justified the murder of Tiberius Gracchus that way, as well as of one Marcus Manlius who “used his private property to release debtors and redeem those who were enslaved for debt” (2.3)! Just when I thought I could not be any more disgusted by the ancient Romans, they go and prove me wrong. — Salutati also adds some major qualifications to the right of tyrannicide: if the people recognize some lawful prince, the decision to kill the tyrant should come from him; if not, then from the people as a whole; but it isn't lawful for an individual to do this on his own initiative (2.15, 2.17, 2.19). I'm not quite sure how he expected this to work; it's not like the tyrant will allow the people to hold a mass meeting and vote on whether they want to kill him or not. . .

Next there's a discussion on whether Caesar was a tyrant or not. Salutati spends most of this section citing opinions of Cicero and the like to the effect that Caesar was not a bad or cruel ruler, that he was magnanimous to the losers of the civil war in which he came to power, etc. This struck me as irrelevant since Salutati had previously defined a tyrant as someone who rules despite having no legal right to it; whether his rule is benevolent or not has nothing to do with this definition. But he does come back to this definition at the end of the section, where he claims that the Roman people, grateful for Caesar's handling of the civil war and its aftermath, lawfully and freely conferred upon him the various honours, offices, etc. that he thenceforth held (3.11–12), which means that he was no tyrant as he got his power legally.

Perhaps this is true, but if so, it just shows how inadequate his definition of a tyrant is. Many tyrants seize power in a way that is more or less technically legal — Hitler is perhaps the most famous example; and even nowadays we see all sorts of wanna-be-dictator strongmen popping up all over the world on the basis of elections, referendums etc. I think the true definition of a tyrant should consider how easy or difficult it is for the people to get rid of him. But then this would make it hard to consider monarchy (of the sort where a hereditary monarch really runs the country and isn't just a figurehead) a legitimate (non-tyrannous) form of government, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that someone like Salutati doesn't adopt this definition of tyranny.

There's an interesting passage where Salutati points out that the civil war between Pompey and Caesar “was not about whether some one man should rule and have supreme control of the state, but which of the two it should be. [. . .] It was a contest, not to preserve the commonwealth, but to destroy it.” (3.9) That is sad but probably true; but it still doesn't mean that the winner of the contest was not a tyrant. Ideally, instead of assassinating Caesar after he became a tyrant, they should have assassinated both him *and* Pompey before the civil war even started.

Anyway, Salutati thus argues that killing Caesar was wrong because he was no tyrant, but a benevolent ruler who brought peace to a country previously torn apart by civil war; a veritable “father of his country” (4.1, 4.20). He also follows the old idea that monarchy is the best form of government (4.16–17), provided of course that you have a good monarch, such as Caesar (in Salutati's view at least) obviously was. This reminded me a little of the dialogue Republics and Kingdoms Compared that I read a few years ago, and then ranted at interminable length about these things, so I shouldn't repeat myself too much here. But it seems obvious to me that even if you had a good monarch (which I don't for a moment believe possible anyway), it's the very principle of monarchy that is the problem. People get used to obeying one man, and sooner or later the present good monarch will be succeeded by a bad one, and people will still obey him, leading to all sorts of horrors. Rome itself is an excellent example — you start with monarchs like Caesar and Augustus, who were by all accounts good and capable rulers, and then within like 50 years you end up with degenerates like Caligula and Nero, who were allowed to get away with their abuses for years because by then people were already so used to obeying an emperor that somehow nobody thought to run them through with a sword as should have been done in the first year of each of their reigns. . .

So killing Caesar, in my opinion, was a good and necessary thing regardless of whether he was personally a good ruler or not. It was necessary simply as a statement that monarchy is wrong and shouldn't be accepted as a legitimate form of government. (Salutati himself hints at this sort of motivation in 4.6, but doesn't go into detail.) If they had kept murdering people like him quickly and regularly enough, perhaps they wouldn't have had Caligula and Nero the next century. The only problem I have with the assassination of Caesar is that I doubt that the assassins really cared much about the people as a whole. It seems that they were either supporters of Pompey's faction who were sore about having just lost the civil war, or simply high-ranking aristocrats who wanted the regime to remain basically oligarchic so they could keep running the country without having a pesky monarch above them. In any case they didn't care about the masses of the regular people. Caesar seems to have actually been popular with the people at the time of his assassination, and it was almost touching to read Salutati's description of the expressions of grief after his death, and of the people's anger at the assassins (4.4).

I was somewhat surprised and disappointed to see Salutati defend monarchy like this, considering that he himself came from a republic. Perhaps his thinking was influenced by the instability and civil strife that was so typical of republican city-states like Florence, and liked the idea of a monarch as someone who, by his power, prevents the state from descending into civil war. Throughout chapter 4, he emphasizes that Caesar's administration brought peace and that Rome entered a new civil war immediately after his assassination. But this is the wrong solution to the problem of civil wars. From what I remember of reading Tom Holland's Rubicon, the instabilities in the late Roman republic were coming from the fact that the people at the top of the social pyramid were getting too rich and too powerful. What would have been smallish groups of supporters shouting at each other or brawling in the streets a couple centuries earlier was now able to grow into armies fighting a civil war against each other. The solution to this is obviously to do away with this dangerous concentration of power — kill them, nationalize their property, whatever. Concentrating the power even more, in the hands of just one man, is the last thing you should do in a situation like this — you might get a little temporary peace, but then you'll also get Nero and Caligula, and eventually new civil wars anyway as the various usurpers start fighting for the throne.

The treatise ends with a short chapter on the treatment of Brutus and Cassius by Dante. In his Divine Comedy, he puts them in the lowest circle of hell, being eaten by Lucifer in the form of a three-headed monster (so there's room for Judas Iscariot as well). From what we've seen in the previous chapters, it's no surprise that Salutati approves of this, since treason is bad, monarchy is good, etc. (5.4, 5.6). Dante makes each of the devil's heads a different colour, so Salutati includes some discussion about their symbolical meaning (5.2–3)

Antonio Loschi's Invective Against the Florentines

This is the only piece in this book that is not by Salutati. Loschi worked for the duke of Milan, with which Florence had been at war several times in the late 14th century, so it's understandable that he had much to say against the Florentines. His invective reminded me a little of those by Petrarch that I had read some time ago (see my old post about that book), but I actually liked Loschi's invective better. It's relatively short and contains a good balance of fine rhetoric and actual specific points. In other words, at least he points to specific things that the Florentines had done (and that he objects to), unlike Petrarch, who, as far as I remember his invectives, was too often content to remain on the level of ‘my opponent is an idiot, and his feet smell bad’.

I don't know the details of the political situation at the time, so I can't comment on whether Loschi's claims are valid, but one recurring idea is that Florence interferes too much in other countries' affairs, and there's probably some truth to that, the same as it is true of any powerful country. He also complains about their alliance with the king of France and their attempts to get him involved in Italian affairs as well. I can sympathize with that; nobody likes to see foreigners interfering in his country's internal struggles.

A nice remark on this latter subject: “it is very easy for the French to enter Italy, but difficult to return thence victorious. Whence our popular proverb: Italy is the tomb of the French.” (¶16)

Reply to a Slanderous Detractor

Salutati's reply to Loschi is almost ten times the length of Loschi's invective. He starts by saying that the invective is so bad that he refuses to believe it's by Loschi — “so many are the mendacious insults, so many are the grammatical faults, unworthy of a man of his erudition, that riddle this invective, so many are the enraged but ignorant taunts that disfigure it” (p. 171 and ¶3). This is either a remarkable example of charity, or a delicious backhanded insult. I was reminded of the famous remark that “some asshole is signing your name to stupid letters”.

He also points out that the invective mostly just asserts things without providing any proof or argument, so the whole thing can be dismissed simply by denying that his claims are true (¶2). I guess he is on to something here, but then I never had the impression that invectives were supposed to do more than brazenly assert that your enemy's feet smell bad.

The bulk of his reply then consists of what would nowadays be called fisking. Salutati quotes the invective a few sentences or a paragraph at a time and then provides his reply to the quoted passage before moving on to the next one. Most of the time his reply is not really an invective by itself, which in a way is commendable but also made for somewhat boring reading.

Occasionally he does stoop to cheap and annoying tricks such as taking a very literal interpretation of some passage in Loschi's invective (e.g. something that employs hyperbole or metaphor) and then replying to that, even though it's obvious to everyone that this isn't exactly what Loschi had had in mind. See e.g. the dissection of Loschi's phrase “legions of cavalry” (¶78), where Salutati digs deeply into the etymology of these terms and into Roman practices of assembling their forces, arguing that applying the word “legion” to anything other than infantry is nonsensical.

And similarly in ¶141, when Loschi complains about the Florentine's “craftiness and ungovernable license to lie and engage in conspiracies”, Salutati replies: “what is this ungovernable license to plot and lie? Do tell me, who ever granted this license to the Florentines? [. . .] If license was granted us, why censure us? Surely it's not wicked for us or anyone else to exercise what is our right?” :))) [By the way, this is also a nice illustration of how much English has borrowed from Latin. . . Salutati is basically making a joke based on two senses of the Latin word licentia, and the same joke works in English as well.]

He also makes pedantically uncharitable remarks about Loschi's grammar from time to time (e.g. ¶129).

Often, however, he points out genuine weaknesses in the invective. For example, Loschi makes it seem as if the Florentines were trying to spread tyranny and slavery around, but meanwhile he is in the employ of the duke of Milan, who is an even bigger tyrant. Many of Loschi's calumnies against Florence can be rejected simply by pointing out that hey, it's renaissance Florence — a city prosperous both materially and culturally, and thus bound to come out looking pretty good when compared against pretty much any of their neighbours. While pointing this out, Salutati goes into a fine bit of righteous fury: “And you, you foul and vile being, you disgusting filth, offspring of filth, how dare you call Florence the dregs of Italy!” (¶115)

Salutati also goes into a considerable amount of detail about various recent conflicts, the Florentine alliance with France, etc., to show that Loschi got pretty much everything wrong. I wasn't really terribly interested in this stuff at this level of detail, but I imagine it must have meant a lot to Salutati, who had been in a way involved in all these events during his thirty or so years as the chancellor of the Florentine republic (“I stand armed with knowledge of facts, the truth behind events, and a just cause. I know the treaties, I know the alliances, I know the violations and betrayals:” ¶180).

His reply concludes with some fine rhetoric again. There is probably a fancy Greek name for this sort of thing, doing something while pretending not to be doing it: “I could call you [. . .] a Nero or a Caligula [. . .] I could call you a Sardanapalus of sensuality, a Xerxes of pleasure [. . .] For lust I can call you Priapus or Silenus or [. . .] that champion of venereal monstrosity, that wretched example of the worst perversion that was Varius Antoninus, known as Heliogabalus.” (¶177) He ends with a challenge to Loschi, saying that he is ready to continue the debate, and a few parting insults: “If you start to lie again, I'll not stand for it and I'll return to the fray. [. . .] And be careful at least not to offend my ears with more grammatical errors, of which you have already made a disgraceful number.” (¶183)

I don't think that Loschi wrote any reply to Salutati's reply, or at least I don't remember any mention of such a thing in the notes to this book, so I guess the debate ended there. Overall I have to say that there are some very nice passages in Salutati's reply, but most of it wasn't terribly interesting. If someone were to cut it down to be about the same length as Loschi's invective, it could be quite enjoyable.

A nice bit of invective from ¶40: “Your speech seems to smacks not only of stupidity, but blasphemy and heresy — a charge easy to suppose in the case of Ghibellines — and utter, helpless mendacity.”

Labels: , , ,

BOOK: Gordon Martel, "The Month that Changed the World"

Gordon Martel: The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 and WW1. Oxford University Press, 2017 (first ed. 2014). 9780199665396. xxv + 484 pp.

How could I resist another book about the July Crisis, the flurry of diplomatic activity between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of WW1 about a month later? I have read several such books already — Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer, McMeekin's July 1914: Countdown to War, Clark's Slepwalkers (shame on me, I was too lazy to write blog posts about the last two of these) — but this one, by Gordon Martel, is probably the best one yet.

What sets this book apart from the others I've read is that it very deliberately refrains from looking for any deeper explanations for the war. It starts with a provocative epigraph: “After the historian has ascertained the facts, there is no further process of inquiring into their causes. When he knows what happened, he already knows why it happened. — R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History.” I could practically see the author making a troll face when picking that quote :)

Like many such books, it starts with a bit of background, through it doesn't go into this as broadly and as far back as e.g. Sleepwalkers does. One notable thing about this introductory chapter is its focus on the idea that Europe had been at peace for a long time by then and that nobody saw much of a reason why this should change. There were no obvious reasons for Great Powers to go to war against one another and war was increasingly seen as an obsolete thing that was only happening in the colonies or in peripheral, backwards regions such as the Balkans (pp. 2–5). (As I vaguely remember it, many other books present the situation as much more tense, as if everyone was holding their breath waiting for a war to break out. Fromkin says (p. 39) that Europe was “in a mood [. . .] to smash things”.)

There is a chapter about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which goes into a reasonable but not excessive amount of detail. There is a bit more about the background of the various conspirators involved in the assassination (pp. 50–64) than I remember from some of the other books about this. One detail that was new to me from this chapter was how poor the security had been during Franz Ferdinand's visit — Martel contrasts it with the much tighter security during the visit of Emperor Franz Josef a few years earlier (p. 72). In other words, you can't help feeling that the assassination, and hence the outbreak of the WW1, the millions of casualties, etc., could have been prevented just with some additional security measures that should have been routine in such cases anyway — wow!

The book then goes into a fairly detailed week-by-week treatment of the developing crisis over the next three weeks, but its main focus, and what the author reserves the term ‘July Crisis’ for, is the one-week period between the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia and the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia. In this period each day gets a separate chapter to itself. There were many interesting details here that I hadn't heard of before or at least hadn't been really aware of them. I used to think of the war as being more or less the fault of Germany, though after reading Sleepwalkers I thought that some of the blame might also go to Russia for its mobilizing while pretending that it wasn't really doing so. But now after this book I couldn't help feeling that there is plenty of blame to go around for nearly everyone involved.

I was impressed by the extent of the concessions that the Serbs were prepared to make in response to the Austrian ultimatum (pp. 206–7, 304), and depressed by how relentlessly stubborn the Austrians were in their wish to go to war against Serbia (pp. 249, 305). The Serbian reply was seen by nearly everyone else as an excellent basis to solve the crisis peacefully with a bit more negotiation (pp. 243–5, 265, 271). Edward Grey, the British foreign minister, was proposing that a conference of ambassadors (British, German, French, Italian) should mediate between Austria and Russia (the latter being the chief protector of Serbia in this crisis); pp. 180, 195, 346. Others proposed direct discussions between Austria and Russia (pp. 223–4, 269). But the Austrians wanted to go to war against Serbia, they were convinced that their prestige and their status as a Great Power requires it, and the ultimatum had really been just an excuse and nothing more. I was in principle aware of this before, but it comes across more clearly in the more detailed exposition in this book.

I also couldn't help being annoyed by the British for not announcing clearly and early that they would stand by France and Russia. Perhaps if they had done so, Germany would have backed down, then Austria might have backed down and the war would not have happened at all. But sadly, Grey stubbornly refused to make any sort of commitments (and admittedly, most of the British cabinet, as well as the public, was strongly against any such involvement up until the German invason of Belgium; pp. 251, 280, 290, 367, 376–8, 384–8). On August 2: “No one was certain what the British would do. Especially not the British.” (P. 374.) :))

An interesting detail that I wasn't previously aware of concerns the involvement of Italy. Their alliance with Germany and Austria was defensive, so I thought that this was by itself enough of a reason for them not to enter the war. But in this book it turns out there was another issue: their alliance included the concept of ‘compensation’, in the sense that if one of Austria and Italy expanded its territory in southeastern Europe, the other one must get some territory as well, as a sort of compensation, to keep the balance of power between them I suppose. During the July crisis, Germany was constantly urging the Austrians to sort out the matter of compensation with Italy and thereby ensure that Italy would stand by them. Ideally Austria would have offered some of its own predominantly-Italian territories, which had been coveted for some time by Italian irredentists; or at least some bits of territory in the Balkans. But the Austrians pretty much offered nothing, and as a result Italy stayed neutral (pp. 185–6, 231–5, 276, 289, 339, 342).

But the overall impression of the way the crisis is presented in this book is one of chaos and madness. (“By evening [of July 30] there was confusion everywhere”, p. 328.) This is no doubt in large part because the author deliberately keeps the narrative at a fairly low level: the story proceeds chronologically, day by day, almost hour by hour, and the story is basically one long procession of meetings and telegrams being sent back and forth, often at the most unholy late-night hours. (“By Sunday [August 2] morning everyone involved in the crisis was utterly exhausted”, p. 374.) I didn't even try to keep all the details in my head as the story is too complex for that and the cast of characters too numerous. But these events probably felt just as confusing and chaotic to the participants themselves, and the good thing about the way this book presents the story is that it gives you an idea of what it must have felt like to them.

Perhaps my favourite part of the book is the concluding chapter, “Making Sense of the Madness”. First it tells the history of the history of the July Crisis, so to speak — i.e. how the crisis was seen by historians and politicians over the rest of the 20th century. Already during the war, the various countries involved published (more or less biased) selections of diplomatic correspondence in an attempt to justify their involvement in the war and blame their enemies for causing it (p. 402). The question of war guilt also attracted a great deal of interest just after the war; the Versailles Treaty famously included an article that blamed the war on Germany. More and more diplomatic papers were published by various governments in an effort to facilitate the study of the origins of the war (pp. 408–10).

By the 1930s, as most of the politicians directly involved in the outbreak of WW1 were dead or retired, the question of the origins of war became more of a topic for historians than politicians, and it began to be studied by a new generation of slightly less biased historians such as Sidney B. Fay and Bernadotte Schmitt (pp. 412–3). Accordingly attention focused away from the July Crisis and more towards various deeper causes of the war: nationalism, imperialism, capitalism, etc. (Martel makes an interesting argument that this had an unfortunate side effect in the 1930s: as people widely accepted the idea that the war had such deeper causes, this meant that they couldn't blame it primarily on Germany; but this, since the Versailles treaty was premised on the idea that Germany was guilty for the war, made it hard for them to object when Hitler started dismantling the treaty after he came to power. “When Hitler came to power and began his campaign to tear up the treaty of Versailles, there was no one left to speak up for it.” P. 415. See also pp. 421–2.)

Since then, countless books have been written about the origins of the WW1, and you can't help feeling that Martel is a bit jaded about the whole thing: you can pick one or more (or all) of the Great Powers (and/or your favourite -ism) and you can surely find, in the inexhaustible mass of diplomatic documents and other sources from the July crisis, something to blame the war on them in particular. I guess this is why his book very deliberately refuses to blame anyone (and indeed when I got to this point in the book I couldn't help admitting that it had never really pushed me into assigning blame to anyone in particular — any ideas about blame that I had had while reading it had come from my biases and my interpretations of the story as described in the book).

Considering that so many different ideas have been put forth as to the deeper causes of the war or which Great Power(s) should be blamed for it, you can hardly blame the author for not wanting to commit himself to any of these theories (or putting forth yet another one of his own). This is why he focuses on the July Crisis itself, and argues that ultimately the war was triggered by the decisions made by those specific people in those specific days, mostly that fateful week at the end of July 1914. “War was not inevitable. It was the choices that men made during those fateful days that plunged the world into a war. They did not walk in their sleep.” (I guess this must be a jab at Clark's Sleepwalkers? :]) “They knew what they were doing. They were not stupid. They were not ignorant. The choices they made were rational, carefully calculated, premised on the assumptions an attitudes, ideas and experience that they had accumulated over the years. Real people, actual flesh-and-blood human beings, were responsible for the tragedy of 1914 — not unseen, barely understood forces beyond their control.” (Pp. 420–1.) “Blind ‘historical forces’ did not devise ultimatums or mobilize millions: men of flesh and blood did.” (P. 425.)

Another epic sentence from p. 422: “Men do learn from their mistakes: they learn how to make new ones.” :)) The author demonstrates how some of the lessons learned from the outbreak of the WW1 led to new problems in the years leading up to the WW2 (pp. 422–3, 430).

What to say at the end? I really liked this book. Some of the middle parts while the crisis is in progress can be a bit dry at times, but the concluding chapter more than makes up for it. This book gave me a fresh perspective on the July Crisis and the outbreak of the war.

Labels: , , ,

BOOK: Martijn Icks, "The Crimes of Elagabalus"

Martijn Icks: The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2013. 9781780765501. xi + 276 pp.

Elagabalus was an early-3rd-century Roman emperor who, if he isn't quite as notorious as Nero or Caligula, it certainly isn't for want of trying. I'm not sure when I first heard of him, but it was probably in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (see the quotations at the end of this post). Later I encountered him again in Alma-Tadema's beautiful painting The Roses of Heliogabalus, which illustrates one of the ancient anecdotes about him: supposedly, as a sort of cruel prank, he had a massive pile of rose petals thrown upon some of his guests, some of whom actually suffocated before they could dig themselves out.

When I saw that someone wrote a whole book about this curious and bizarre figure, I naturally couldn't resist buying and eventually reading it. It seems to be based on the author's PhD thesis, and I was very glad to see that it exhibits almost none of the faults that such books usually have. Usually they end up being too pedantic and retaining too much of the irrelevant stuff that a PhD thesis is supposed to have but that isn't really of interest to anyone except perhaps the thesis committee (or, let's be honest, probably not even them :]). But there is nothing of that here; it's a pleasant and readable book, and perhaps the only trace of its origins is the careful way it's structured (for example, each chapter has a short conclusion at the end) and the amount of attention it devotes to changes in historiographical trends over the centuries.

The book is partly about Elagabalus himself, but partly also about his ‘afterlife’ — the way he was presented over the centuries since his death, both in fiction and in non-fiction. I found both aspects of the book very interesting. Elagabalus originated from the town of Emesa in Syria; his family had been locally prominent there for a while, but their big break came when the future emperor Septimius Severus married into it (pp. 50, 54, 58). Elagabalus became emperor at the tender age of 14 thanks to the machinations of his relatives, especially his ambitious grandmother Julia Maesa (Severus's sister-in-law), who passed him off as an illegitimate son of the late emperor Caracalla (Severus's son, who was actually a cousin of Elagabalus's mother; pp. 10–11).

Clearly the idea was for Elagabalus to be a puppet in the hands of his older relatives and various other people, but he got harder to control as he got older (p. 27). Like many members of his family, he was heavily involved in the cult of Elagabal, a local deity that had started as a mountain god (hence its name: El = god, Gabal = mountain) but later became a sun god (pp. 48–9). About two years after becoming emperor, Elagabalus tried to push a big religious reform with Elagabal becoming the main god of the Roman state religion, with Elagabalus as his high-priest (p. 29). He built two large temples to Elagabal in Rome and brought from Emesa a large black stone that represented the new god and was then moved periodically from one temple to another with great ceremony (p. 30). These and other similar outrages (such as marrying a vestal virgin; p. 31) made him increasingly unpopular with pretty much everyone, including the his relatives and the army, so that he was eventually killed (having reigned for only four years) and his younger cousin, Severus Alexander, installed as a new emperor. Elagabalus's reforms were reversed and his memory condemned (p. 43).

Icks pays a lot of attention not only to the story of Elagabalus's life and career, but also to how it can be reconstructed and what sources are available concerning it. I liked this aspect of the book a lot since it gives us a peek behind the curtains, so to speak, showing us how historians figure things out. There are three main written sources about him: the accounts of Dio Cassius and Herodian, contemporaries of Elagabalus, and a biography in the Augustan History, written one or two centuries later. Icks points out that each of these sources has certain biases, and in particular the last of these, since it was written so long after Elagabalus's time, could afford to embellish the story with exaggerations or even outright fabrications (p. 121). Another important source are coins and inscriptions, which give us an idea of what sort of image the emperor tried to promote to the public (chap. 3).

The second half or so of the book deals with Elagabalus's ‘afterlife’, and I was impressed by the amount of works mentioning Elagabalus that Icks has managed to dig up; many of them are quite obscure. Many authors, especially in earlier times, tended to rely too uncritically on the three written accounts mentioned earlier, repeating their most outrageous anecdotes as if they were solid, reliable facts. They mostly show Elagabalus as an example of a grotesquely bad ruler, a cruel tyrant, etc. (Icks points out that from the perspective of the empire as a whole, the administration during the four years of Elagabalus' rule wasn't unusually bad — the country was stable, etc. (pp. 88, 215). As long as you weren't in Rome, dodging rose petals (p. 112) and large felines (p. 110) at Elagabalus's dinner-parties, you might hardly even notice that there was anything particularly bad about him.)

One of the reasons why the Icks tends to be skeptical of many of the more outrageous anecdotes about Elagabalus is that they fit so neatly into well-established tropes (or “topoi” as he calls them; p. 93) of writing about tyrants, effeminate Orientals, homosexuals, etc. For example, he points out that Dio describes Augustus as an example of a nearly-ideal emperor early in his work, and that his description of Elagabalus is pretty much the exact opposite of this ideal on all counts (pp. 94–5).

A curious mention of Elagabalus in the Renaissance: the historian Leonardo Bruni wrote a fictional ‘Oration of Elagabalus to the harlots’ through which he “criticises the (perceived) decadence of Renaissance Rome. [. . .] Heliogabalus tells his audience that there is too much chastity in the capital. To remedy this unfortunate state of affairs, he introduces a new law, decreeing that all women will be public property from now on.” (P. 129.) Emperor of the incels :)))

As late as the 19th century, historians still portrayed him negatively. One Johann Schiller, writing in 1883, said that “his reign is verily a witches' Sabbath of fornication, excesses and luxury” (p. 153). Woo hoo :) A notable change in depictions of Elagabalus took place in the late 19th century with the Decadent movement, when artists started portraying him slightly more sympathetically. His “desire to be larger than life” (p. 159) appealed to the decadent sensibilities, and his excesses could be linked to the idea of ‘art for art's sake’ so beloved of the decadents (p. 170) — except that in the case of Elagabalus, I guess, his medium was not stone or paint, but life. A notable example is Stefan George's cycle of poems, Algabal, whose protagonist is a “monarch-artist” somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Mad King’ Ludwig of Bavaria (p. 173).

In the 20th and 21st century the range of portrayals of Elagabalus has expanded still further, and you can't help feeling that many authors just use him as a canvas on which they project whatever it is that they are personally interested in, often something having to do with homosexuality or androgyny (the latter is actually not associated with him by any ancient source, p. 217), or not fitting into society's established gender roles. He is no longer seen as a cruel tyrant or degenerate Easterner like before, but as a misunderstood individual who stands up to the unreasonable strictures of a conservative and intolerant society (most of these works seem to predate the rise of the modern clickbait websites, otherwise they would probably add: ‘and that's a good thing:P).

Frankly, I liked him better as a degenerate tyrant :)

An interesting-looking 20th-century appearance of Elagabalus: Heliogabalus, a Buffoonery in Three Acts (1920), co-authored by H. L. Mencken, sounds like a light-hearted play that pokes fun both at the emperor's desperately decadent excesses and on the prudish morality of his overzealous Christian contemporaries (and those of Mencken's own day); pp. 187–8.

Historians also take a greater interest in him than before; several monographs about him appeared (though judging by Icks' description, the quality of many of them leaves much to be desired; pp. 182–6), and they began to increasingly treat the ancient sources with due skepticism. The only thing I really disliked about these developments is the evident creep of political corectness into historians' views of Elagabalus. Like, before the late 19th century people would say: ‘Elagabalus was an effeminate, degenerate, greasy Easterner, and therefore the embodiment of everything that is bad and wrong.’ The Decadents said: ‘Elagabalus was an effeminate, degenerate, greasy Easterner, and that's awesome! That's just why we like him!’ But modern-day political correctness says: ‘How dare you even imagine that one culture could be inferior to another, you evil racist imperialist orientalist ist ist ist. . . ’

And this last stage, it seems, is where we are now. Ickes writes that “hostile rhetoric concerning ‘Orientals’, let alone Semites, has mostly gone out of scholarly fashion. As a result, the portrayal of Elagabalus in handbooks and reference books tends to be a lot more nuanced than it used to be.” (P. 187.) He quotes, as an example, the description of Elagabalus in two editions of Cambridge Ancient History, 1939 (featuring some fine, nearly Gibbonesque writing: “the obscenities of a Syrian cult”) and 2005 (where the worst thing they dare to say of him is that he was “undiplomatic”). Clearly Icks is on board with these developments, and buys into Said's orientalism thing and all that (p. 154), but I for my part can't help feeling that, if you can no longer call even Elagabalus a degenerate, things have really gone too far.

The book ends with an interesting list of appearances of Elagabalus in media (pp. 219–23). I was particularly impressed by the variety there — besides novels and the like, you can find plays, music albums, two operas (one from the 17th century (pp. 134–7) and one from 2003 (“like an ancient Michael Jackson”, p. 193), comics (one by Neil Gaiman!), even a nice oil painting, etc. The only thing missing is a video game :)

The author's delightful eclecticism in seeking out the references to Elagabalus also shows itself in the plates section. There are plates showing the coins minted during his reign, a few paintings including Alma-Tadema's (unfortunately in grayscale, which robs it of much of its charm), but finally there's a photo of an Italian store called “Eliogabalo”: they sell designer clothes, but “[a]ppropriately for an emperor who worshipped the sun, there is a tanning salon above” :)))

All in all, this was a very interesting book and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in Elagabalus.


  • Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado: The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction (2010), another recent book about Elagabalus, seems potentially interesting. Icks wrote an interesting review of this book, and it seems that Prado adopted an excessively skeptical approach, the description of which sounded to me as something that would happen if you tried to replace the historians with the cyc inference engine :)) Prado later edited and published several volumes of “Varian Studies” (e.g. Vol. 3), named after Elagabalus' original first name (Varius).
  • R. Gilman: Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet (NY, 1979). Mentioned here in the bibliography on p. 262

P.S. I went and re-read what Gibbon had written about Elagabalus in his Decline and Fall and here are a few of my favourite passages:

“The grave senators confessed with a sigh, that, after having long experienced the stern tyranny of their own countrymen, Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism.”

“Elagabalus [. . .] corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune, abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury, and soon found disgust and satiety in the midst of his enjoyments.”

Gibbon on the “vices and follies of Elagabalus”: “their inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country”.

“The emperor [. . .] viewing every rank of his subjects with the same contemptuous indifference, asserted without control his sovereign privilege of lust and luxury.”

P.P.S. Some time after buying a printed copy of this book, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is also available online: link. It seems to be a slightly earlier version than my paper copy; for example, the URL of Matt Hugher's painting on p. 222 of my printed edition is different and more recent (“accessed 9 August 2012”) than on the web page (“accessed 27 September 2007”). Interestingly, the description under that painting on Hughes' website now just calls it “Ceasar” (sic), without mentioning Elagabalus.

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 20, 2018

BOOK: J. M. Coetzee, "Waiting for the Barbarians"

J. M. Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1999 (first published in 1980). 0140283358. 152 pp.

This book is another welcome piece of evidence for my old theory that Nobel laureates write surprisingly good books. I had heard of Coetzee before but hadn't really been planning to read any of his books; I heard of this short novel of his, first published in 1980, very recently and purely by chance. I was looking for something about Sven Hedin, the famous Swedish explorer of Central Asia from the late 19th and early 20th century, and came across a very interesting article (H. Wittenbert, K. Highman: “Sven Hedin's ‘vanished country’: Setting and history in J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians”; link 1, link 2) about Hedin's influence on the setting of Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Although Coetzee's book is deliberately vague about where and when exactly it's taking place, apparently he took a lot of inspiration from Hedin's (and other explorers') descriptions of certain areas of Central Asia, especially of the long-ruined city of Lou-lan that Hedin discovered in 1901 near the lake of Lop Nor. At the same time, I guess that another major inspiration for the novel was the way the South African authorities treated the blacks under the apartheid system.

<spoiler warning>

The story is told by a first-person narrator, who like most characters in the story remains unnamed. He used to be the magistrate, i.e. the head of the civil administration, of a small town at the very edges of some unnamed Empire. It used to be quite an idyllic existence — a sleepy, peaceful place (it didn't even have a prison), with not too much work for an administrator like him, so he could spend plenty of time on visiting friends, mistresses (he is an older man and a widower, and doesn't seem to have any children), and on his various hobbies such as hunting, reading “the classics”, and antiquarianism — he likes to conduct excavations in the nearby ruins of an ancient city, and occasionally tries to decipher the inscriptions he found there. (This is probably the point where Coetzee was the most directly influenced by Hedin's discoveries. There is also the more general environmental influence: the area where the story is set seems to be relatively dry, though the settlement itself is in something of an oasis; there are cold winters and hot summers. A “tiger rampant” is mentioned at one point among the symbols of the Empire, which is more or less the only thing specifically linking it to an Asian setting. One thing which somewhat surprised me is that the characters use firearms (of a relatively primitive sort), which felt almost anachronistic since everything else in the novel looks like it could easily have taken place at least two thousand years ago.)

Theoretically, the Empire ends there and beyond it there are barbarians, but they are far from being dangerous raging hordes. They are in fact only small harmless groups of nomads, who trade with the Magistrate's settlement often, invariably get stiffed in the process by the locals who hate them, and yet the never cause any real trouble.

The novel opens at a point when this peaceful existence is coming to an end. Supposedly a major barbarian invasion is looming, and on the basis of this claim some sort of emergency measures have been imposed in the Empire, most of the usual process of law has been suspended and a sort of gestapo-like police organization called the ‘Third Bureau’ is now basically running around with unlimited powers. At the start of the novel, a group of Third Bureau men led by a Colonel Joll has arrived at the Magistrate's settlement, supposedly to investigate the barbarian situation with a view to preparing a subsequent military campaign against them. Joll et al. are invariably grotesquely sadistic and arrogant, their methods of investigation consist more or less entirely of torture and over-the-top brutality, and it soon becomes obvious that far from protecting the Empire from the barbarian threat, they are in fact making the situation worse.

Joll arrests a few barbarians who happen to have been in the vicinity at the time, and tortures them mercilessly to get them to disclose their (obviously non-existent) invasion plans. Naturally, this sort of treatment can only make the barbarians more likely to turn hostile, rather than less. After Joll returns back to the capital to prepare the next phases of the anti-barbarian campaign, it's left to the Magistrate to try picking up the pieces and mending the relations with the barbarians again — after all, it's he and his fellow townspeople that have to actually live next to them.

The Magistrate even takes in a young barbarian woman that has been lamed and partly blinded by Joll and his torturers. Their relationship can, I guess, best be described the way they say on facebook — ‘it's complicated’. At times he treats her as his mistress, at times he just wants to help her recover, and much of the time he himself doesn't seem to be quite sure what he expects from his relationship with her. The novel spends quite a lot of time on these things, which I think goes to show that it's serious literature and not merely an entertaining genre novel. No doubt this is very good stuff for the right sort of readers, but for myself I didn't quite know what to do with most of the Magistrate's internal ruminations on this subject. Fortunately the writer knows how to dose them in moderate quantities so they never get tedious.

After a good few months, perhaps almost a year, the Magistrate decides to take the young woman back to the nearest barbarian encampment, so that she can decide if she wants to stay there (and they can hopefully help her get back to her family) or return to the settlement with him (though it seems that he is growing a bit bored with her). She decides to stay with the barbarians, and when the Magistrate returns to the settlement — the whole journey took a couple of weeks at least — it turns out that things have changed dramatically in his absence. Joll's goons are back in town and they arrest the Magistrate on the suspicion that the purpose of his trip was really to warn the barbarians of the impending large-scale military campaign against them. It is of course easy for them to torture people into providing all sorts of incriminating testimony against the Magistrate, much of it blatantly false, some of it perhaps fueled by honest resentments about his close relationship with the young barbarian woman (and claims that he had been neglecting his administrative work because of her).

The Magistrate demands a trial, but they have no interest in that. They do in fact at times conduct trials of the cangaroo-court type, but under their emergency powers they don't even have to do that, and they simply keep the Magistrate in prison and torture him regularly, presumably for no other reason than that they are evil and that they figure it's the best way to assert their power. This part of the story felt rather nauseating at times, so I think the author did a very good job at conveying how repugnant their behaviour is. I was reminded a little of Orwell here — the purpose of torture is torture, the boot stomping on a human face, etc.

Joll himself is actually away campaigning most of this time, and it's an underling of his named Mandel that runs things is absence. This is in fact one of the very few named characters besides Joll in this book, and I was somewhat surprised by the choice of name. “Joll” sounds vague and nondescript and could be from many parts of the world, but “Mandel” strikes me as distinctly Jewish, which seemed to me to be a somewhat odd choice given the setting of the novel.

As the whole story is told from the Magistrate's first-person perspective, we tend not to hear much about things that he didn't know himself. The details of the campaign against the barbarians are unclear, but evidently it isn't going well. Either a serious barbarian invasion force must have existed to begin with, or (more likely in my opinion) the brutality of Joll and the likes of him must have provoked the barbarians into a serious opposition. Still, we see very little of this supposed formidable barbarian force here. At one point Joll rolls into the town with a dozen wretched barbarian prisoners, and we cannot help realizing that, even if a real barbarian army exists somewhere out there, these people obviously cannot have anything to do with it. They must have been some unfortunates who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and whom he arrested simply as a way to cover up the failures of his campaign. Joll's men proceed to flog the prisoners brutally in the public square (makes you wonder who's the real barbarian here), to much delight of the assembled civilian population, except for the Magistrate, who tries to protest loudly, only to get badly beaten up himself by Joll's goons.

After a while, Mandel releases the Magistrate, perhaps because he figures that at this point this is the best way to continue demonstrating the Third Bureau's power: they are so powerful and the Magistrate so weak that they can afford to let him roam around freely, as a homeless beggar. He slowly re-establishes contact with old acquaintances and finds that people have a good deal of sympathy for him, and dislike for Joll's men, but of course everyone tries to keep their heads down most of the time.

As rumours of the disastrous failure of the anti-barbarian campaign mount up, morale in the settlement grows worse, more and more people leave for the interior of the Empire in search of safety, and Mandel's garrison treats the remaining civilians increasingly badly. The settlement is slowly losing not only its population but also the societal structures that enabled it to function as a town at all. The inn shuts down, the school shuts down, etc. Eventually the garrison leaves as well, ostensibly as a temporary measure, but it's clear to everyone that the Empire is abandoning the settlement due to its inability to defend it. A little later Joll and the tattered remnants of his forces pass through the town as well, in a further proof that their campaign must have ended in disaster. The townsfolk are now left to their own devices, trying to make it through the next winter, cope with the loss of population, carry on farming despite the ever-present barbarian threat, etc. The Magistrate informally takes lead of many of these efforts, thus slipping into something resembling his old role again.

The novel ends before we could see how things will really turn out. Will a large barbarian force eventually turn up and wipe out the town in an orgy of fire and blood? Or has it all been a giant phantasmagoria and will the frontier go back to its sleepy, peaceful days now that the Third Bureau troublemakers are gone? Will the town be able to recover from the loss of population and environmental devastation (the barbarians have flooded some areas by messing with irrigation systems, and Joll's soldiers have burned down other areas ostensibly because they could provide cover to barbarian guerillas)? Or will it enter into a slow (or not so slow) decline and soon turn into a ruin not unlike the one that the Magistrate has had so much fun excavating in the happier days of peace? The last scene is on a sort of life-goes-on note: the magistrate passes by a group of children that are making a snowman.

</spoiler warning>

I really enjoyed this novel, except, as I already mentioned above, for the torture parts, which made me queasy. It raises many interesting questions about civilisation, imperialism, even environmentalism. The settlement in which most of the story takes place was built up by the Empire about a hundred years ago, on land where formerly the barbarian nomads used to graze their herds. It's a story as old as farming (so about ten thousand years) — farmers pushing pastoralists out of their lands. It's despicable, but you can't help feeling a hypocrite for condemning it, since the vast majority of humankind nowadays lives in civilizations based on farming rather than nomadic animal husbandry. Apart from this ‘original sin’, as it were, the townsfolk don't seem like a particularly bad sort, and the Magistrate's description of life in the old days of peace and prosperity seems fairly idyllic, which makes it hard to see the setting up of a town like that as wholly bad. But that's precisely what makes civilization so insidious, of course; its good sides are just attractive enough to easily lure us into excusing the abuse and injustice that inevitably lies at its foundation.

There's an interesting environmental aspect to the story as well, although it doesn't have such a prominent part in it. The settlers have built irrigation systems to support their farming, and this perhaps draws more water than the environment can provide: the water in a nearby lake is turning more and more salty — which is beginning to reach the point where fishing will soon be impossible — and the Magistrate himself observes that sooner or later farming may become impossible as well, and the settlement may have to be abandoned. He points out that the barbarians haven't forgotten that it is a relatively recent establishment, and you can sense that they are hanging around waiting for the settlement to fail due to an ecological disaster so they can go back to grazing their herds in the area again. I imagine the author was inspired partly by actual historical examples of abandoned cities, such as the one near Lop Nor mentioned above, and partly by environmental concerns in his own time (1970s) and place (Africa).

Another intriguing topic that the novel explores is the relationship between the centre and the periphery. The novel here consistently takes place at the very edge of the Empire, and seen from this perspective it almost makes you wonder whether there's any point to the centre even existing at all. There are many vague references to the capital of the Empire, and the Magistrate seems to have lived there himself earlier in his career, but now there's nothing but trouble coming out of there — absurd, dangerous decisions such as the one to impose emergency measures, to let the Third Bureau run rampant, to organize a supposed anti-barbarian campaign even though it is plainly obvious (to people such as the Magistrate, who lives on the periphery himself and thus knows the situation there) that no barbarian invasion is looming (and it must have either been a terrible mistake by short-signed, ignorant leadership in the capital, or a cynical fabrication set up by the Third Bureau itself so they would have an excuse to seize power). The Magistrate himself says clearly enough on a number of occasions that nothing would suit him and his fellow townsfolk better than if the Empire and its capital simply forgot about them and let them keep on living their peaceful, sleepy existence as heretofore.

It's a very alluring idea, though of course one cannot help also being aware of its possible downsides (which the Magistrate doesn't say anything about). Suppose you were to radically decentralize the Empire so that each little settlement (such as the one where this novel takes place) becomes completely autonomous. Would this usher in an era of peace and prosperity, or one of constant internecine warfare? (We all know about endlessly squabbling city-states from various periods of history and various parts of the world, after all.) And then there's trade — a part, at least, of the prosperity of the settlement surely relies on trade with the rest of the Empire; with the Empire gone, wouldn't such long-distance trade links wither and die, leading to a slow decline in the standards of living and indeed in the level of civilization itself? (Isn't this exactly what happened in the (western parts of the) Roman Empire in the late antiquity?) If each settlement were left entirely to its own devices, couldn't the barbarians easily crush them one by one? And in general you need a certain level of population to maintain a certain level of civilization. Could sufficiently wise administrators with a sufficiently broad outlook, such as the Magistrate of this story, be brought up and trained in his tiny frontier settlement? Would the classics that he likes to read be likely to have been written (or even just copied) in it? Or were all these things available only because the settlement was part of a larger political and civilizational unit?

I don't pretend to have a good answer to any of this, of course, and I doubt that the novel would claim to have any answers either. I suppose that, as with many other political questions, there is no simple and elegant solution. Different problems might call for different degrees of integration or decentralization. It's something that people have been grappling with throughout history. Personally I'm afraid that the pressure of economic forces nowadays is pushing us too far in the direction of integration, but then allowing local forces to run rampant in the name of decentralization has its own fair share of problems as well.

Frankly, I think the biggest problem with the Empire in this novel is its willingness to impose emergency measures. This is where all the trouble in this novel starts from. We don't really learn anything much about the politics of the Empire, so it's hard to say what other problems it might have; but we know from history — or, indeed, the present — that republics and more or less democratic countries can also easily fall to the allure of emergency measures. Seriously, if I was every called upon to write the constitution of a country, I think I would insert something like this after every other paragraph: “Oh, and by the way, there will be no emergency measures in this country. Not even if you call them something else. Not even if you think you have an excellent excuse for this. Not even if there are actual physical barbarians running through your parliament building right now and stabbing the deputies with swords while they are trying to carry on with regular parliamentary procedures — no, not even then. In fact, especially not then. No emergency measures for you, full stop. Because fuck you and your poorly-concealed totalitarian impulses, that's why.”

Another question, which is really quite independent of whether your country is an empire or something more democratic, is that of interactions between groups of people at vastly different levels of civilization. If, instead of the tattered bands of barbarian wretches, the Empire in this story were facing another similar empire at the same level of development, they would either have to treat each other roughly as equals in order to trade peacefully, or they would have to go to a real war, a total war that really affects the whole country, and not one of these despicable colonial border skirmishes where the imperialists have a jolly good time brutalizing the vastly smaller, weaker, technologically and organizationally inferior natives. There would be much less room in that kind of world for small-minded sadists like Joll and his cheap acts of torture against hapless random civilians. In any case, in my ideal world, people would simply leave other civilizations alone if there was a mismatch in the level of development. Dealing with a civilization far below yours cannot possibly avoid hurting them, so it would be best to just leave them alone and they will eventually develop on their own terms, if they feel inclined to do so.

That being said, it was in fact very nice to see that the conflict between the Empire and the barbarians in this novel actually ends with a victory for the barbarians. I was a bit surprised by that, but perhaps it is simply informed by the author's experiences. After all, the nineteenth century, when the European colonialists scrambled for Africa and easily lorded it over primitive native tribes, was long gone by the time this story was written; the recent and formative experience for the author must have been the period of decolonization in the mid-20th century, when Empires were collapsing and retreating almost everywhere. The few efforts to prolong this sort of imperialism beyond its alotted historical period simply led to worse and worse forms of abuse and torture, which I guess the author had plenty of opportunity to observe first-hand in apartheid-era South Africa.

Apart from these big political and historical questions, there is also another, more personal side to the novel. The Magistrate is grappling with his relations to women, his growing old, his declining libido, his efforts to understand how people like Joll and Mandel can live with themselves, how the masses of the people can remain silent in the face of their actions and thus in a sense become complicit in them, etc. I'm not really equipped to comment on any of these things, so I'll just content myself with noting that they feature prominently in the novel and will no doubt be appreciated by people who can appreciate this sort of things.

All in all, this was a delightful, if at times very uncomfortable, novel, hard to put down, and I particularly liked the random, serendipitous way in which I had come across it. I wonder how many more gems like this are waiting to be discovered in places where I would never think to look for them because I tend to avoid the work of modern serious authors for the simple reason that most of it is incomprehensible (and hence boring) to me. I can only hope for other such lucky encounters in the future.

Labels: , ,

BOOK: Giovanni Pontano, "On Married Love. Eridanus"

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano: On Married Love. Eridanus. Translated by Luke Roman. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 63. Harvard University Press, 2014. 9780674728660. xxvii + 385 pp.

This is the second volume of Pontano's poetry in the I Tatti Renaissance Library — see my post about his Baiae from a few years ago. My impression of this volume is much like of that one: the poems here are pleasant enough, but hardly anything to write home about, nothing terribly stirring here and nothing I'm likely to remember ten years hence.

And I'm starting to get an idea of why this is the case. I like my poets young, dying of consumption, and dipping their quills in their very heart's blood as they write their verses. But Pontano is very much not that — you could say he's the opposite of that. His poems strike me as something that was obviously written by a prosperous middle-aged guy (I cannot help imagining him with a potbelly although I have no idea if he actually had one or not :]), who had a basically stable and content life, a successful career, happy relationships with his wife, children, mistresses, etc. And the poems reflect that; pleasant, but hardly shocking. There's nothing wrong with that, but it isn't quite what I look for in poetry either.

But there is something I should definitely praise about this volume: unlike in the vast majority of the ITRL series, the translations in this book are real poems. They have lines, they even have metre. The only liberty that the translator has taken is to increase the number of lines so as to gain space (p. 334), which is fine as elegies don't rely on having a specific number of lines anyway. As a result, this book was much more enjoyable to read than nearly all the poetry volumes in the ITRL so far. Let's hope for more translations of poetry like this :)

Married Love

The translator's introduction (p. xiv–xv) has a few very interesting remarks about the elegy as a form. To me now the word has some connotations of sadness, but apparently it originally did not, and simply meant any sort of poem written in elegic distychs. They could be on various topics, and many ancient poets (e.g. Ovid) wrote love-poems in this format. However, apparently in ancient times it was unheard of to write elegies to one's wife (as opposed to a mistress), and Pontano was the first poet in history to do so, so that his Married Love is in a sense hugely innovative. I was particularly happy to see a neo-Latin author being innovative because what you usually see in the ITRL is how slavishly imitative of ancient authors they had to be most of the time.

This collection clearly spans a fairly long period of time, and to some extent we can see it as a sort of chronicle of Pontano's marriage and family life. It starts with an epithalamion (wedding-song) for his own wedding (1.2), and towards the end there are two epithalamions for the weddings of his two daughters (3.3–4). There are some nice poems written during his long periods of separation from his family, due to the wars that his employer, the king of Naples, was fighting in the north of Italy (poem 1.7 is particularly nice, wishing for the return of peace so he could go home to his wife again). Occasionally he can be boringly admonitory in giving his wife advice on how to handle the children in his absence (1.9). Eventually peace was concluded and he could return home to his family, which he also celebrated in several poems (2.3–4). There is also a nice sequence of lullabies (2.8–19), though frankly it wasn't quite obvious to me how they would help in getting a child to fall asleep sooner; but then I don't have any experience with children myself. One notable feature of those lullabies is their peculiar fascination with breast-feeding.


I used to think of Eridanus as simply the Latin name of the river Po, and indeed this is mostly what it means here, but according to the translator's note 1 on p. 351 it was originally understood as a mythological river and later identified by various real rivers (most commonly the Po) by various authors.

This collection of poems seems to have been written late in Pontano's life, after the death of his wife. There are a couple of poems addressed to her (2.1, 2.32), and Pontano clearly misses her dearly and is looking forward to being reunited with her in the afterlife. Nevertheless, he took on a courtesan named Stella as a mistress during this period, and probably the largest number of poems in Eridanus are dedicated to her. They mostly struck me as nice but somewhat conventional. One nice feature are the numerous puns based on the fact that her name means “star” in Latin (“Stella, the sky is your native land; from there, you shine brightly”, 1.18.1; “Stella's my torch in darkness that leads to night's delight”, 1.20.1). The punniest poem here, however, is 2.14, about a woman named Ambrosia: “You sprinkled ambrosia, Ambrosia, with your lips” etc.

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of fire and ice in 2.5: “You are the one who sparks in me your torches' flames,/ and you, the same you, freeze my heart with ice” etc. And continuing with analogies from physics, he compares her moods to the weather in the next poem (2.6).

Some of the most touching poems in this series show Pontano trying to cope with the increasing discomforts of old age and loneliness (2.31), especially following the death of not only his wife but their son as well (2.32). He also often defends himself against the idea that it's somehow wrong for an old man to fall in love (2.12, 2.21, 2.24). On one occasion things turn a bit mean as his Stella evidently takes on a younger lover: “You were purchased by the cash/ of an old man, and by a young man's cash,/ my girl. To a young man you'll soon pay back the cash,/ when you are old yourself. [. . .] she who sells in youth,/ in later years will be obliged to buy.” (2.26.30–4)

But there are also many more cheerful and pleasant poems, conveying an image of Pontano enjoying a calm and comfortable retirement in a countryside world of villas, rivers, and nymphs (see e.g. poem 1.40, inviting a friend to dinner at his villa; the whole poem is a lovely catalogue of rustic pleasures, and some of the dishes Pontano mentions are quite mouth-watering: “a tender suckling goat, its first horns showing, stuffed by skillful hand with cherry and with cornel berry”, ll. 27–8). And there are some poems on miscellaneous subjects; I liked 1.41, in which Pontano is trying to console a friend on the death of another friend, who apparently died in war. He recommends him to try to get over the loss by writing poems in praise of the late friend, who is now in a better place anyway. Another nice poem was 2.4, pointing out that unlike Amor, his mistress does not need a bow to shoot arrows at people; she can shoot them from her eyes and cheeks :)

For my collection of suicide-inducing quotations, from 2.22.33–4: “He lives who loves and has possession of his love./ He does not live who love's enjoyment lacks.”

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK: Simon Winchester, "The Meaning of Everything"

Simon Winchester: The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2093. 0192805762. xxvii + 260 pp.

I've always admired the concept behind the Oxford English Dictionary (and other similar dictionaries of other languages) — to include the entirety of the language, both rare and common words, contemporary and long-dead ones, in all their senses, and with plenty of examples illustrating their use through the centuries. How much more impressive this is than the ordinary sort of dictionaries where commercial and practical considerations dictate what is or is not to be included, and where words that are unlikely to be of use to enough people are simply omitted. And how much more educational, too; each article is a miniature history lesson showing how the senses of a word unfolded over time.

(Another and perhaps less commendable reason why I admire such dictionaries is that I always drool at the prospect of massive, many-volumed works, which such dictionaries of course inevitably are.)

In my ideal world, each language would have such a dictionary, but alas, it seems that relatively few actually do. And in my ideal world each government would pay for thousands of lexicographers to work full-time at producing and updating it, so that the whole thing could be produced in a reasonable time and then constantly kept up-to-date. Alas, in the real world, even in large and wealthy countries, this sort of dictionaries seem to have mostly been produced by small teams and work on them consequently spans over many decades, or indeed sometimes exceeds a century and enters the sort of timescales that we usually associate with the construction of medieval cathedrals.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, once you have such a titanic effort extending over such a long period, enough interesting things are bound to accumulate that you can fill a book along the lines of ‘a history of the making of such-and-such a dictionary’. The present book, The Meaning of Everything, is just such a book about the making of the OED. I have found it to be an extremely enjoyable and readable book, you can really feel the author's great enthusiasm for the OED, and in fact my main complaint is that the book is so short — I read it in two days, and could have done it in one if I had had more time that day.

The author takes a broad view of his topic and thus starts the book with a short history of the English language, with a focus on its notable fondness for borrowing all sorts of foreign words, which has tended to bulk up its vocabulary, especially from the Renaissance onwards. He continues with a short history of English dictionaries, and I was particularly interested to see that the idea of a dictionary such as we know it today seems to have been far from obvious at first. The first early modern dictionaries mostly included just ‘difficult’ words that readers were unlikely to know already, many of them obscure recent borrowings from Latin or Greek that saw relatively little use in practice; and they were explained with no more than a short translation or gloss. It took a while for the idea to emerge of a monolingual dictionary that should include all words, detail the various meanings of each word, and illustrate them with citations from actual use.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were those about the beginnings of the OED and the cultural milieu out of which it arose. Unlike today when most scientific work is done by harried, overworked academics who spend half of their time writing grant proposals, the Victorian age was to a large extent still a time of gentleman scientists, of learned amateurs who did this sort of work in their spare time and often on their own dime. The London Philological Society, founded in 1842, was composed of such people, and it was under the auspices of that society that what was intially called ‘A New English Dictionary’ got started.

It was an enormous task, but the Victorian age seems to have been just the perfect time for it, an age of ebullient optimism and dogged tenacity when people were unafraid to take on enormous tasks and sometimes, often enough, even managed to finish them. As the author points out, this was another side of the same mentality that also led to empire-building, the massive expansion of industrialism, and so on. Although he makes a few bows in the direction of political correctness by emphasizing or suggesting that of course the Victorians were evil imperialists, racists, sexists etc. etc. etc., he clearly also can't help admiring their sheer gumption, and for my part neither can I. I'm glad that they did it back then when it was still possible; I can't imagine that anyone would start such a dictionary today.

(But as the author also points out, part of the reason why they were willing to start their New English Dictinary is that they massively underestimated the amount of work it would take.)

There are a couple of chapters about the early editors of the dictionary, a colourful cast of characters who are not that well-known today. Actually the dictionary got off to a very slow and rocky start. The first editor, Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet S. T. Coleridge), was a hard worker but died of consumption at the age of 30, after only a year as the editor; next there was Frederick Furnivall, who was more interested in establishing new scientific societies (pp. 64–5), the company of women much younger than himself, and sculling (the last of these two hobbies he managed to combine; p. 62). Work on the dictionary stalled for something like twenty years and was almost abandoned until the appointment of the dictionary's main and longest-serving editor, James Murray. Among the many impressive characters involved with this dictionary, he is surely the most impressive by far; he was familiar with a stupendous number of languages, dead and alive (many of them quite obscure), he had something like 11 children (who occasionally helped him with the dictionary for pocket-money), and worked for many years as a teacher (while editing the OED in his spare time).

Under Murray the dictionary finally began making steady progress, although it was still much slower than had been initially hoped for. The book gives us an interesting look at the commercial aspects of the dictionary; the Oxford University Press stepped in as the publisher and provided some funding, but was also constantly pestering Murray to deliver as many pages per year as had been agreed upon. We also see a little of Murray's methods of work; he had a kind of shack (which he called by the grand name of ‘the Scriptorium’) built next to his house, filled with shelves of pigeonholes containing the citation slips for words beginning with the letter he was currently working on. One detail that I wasn't expecting is how many letters he wrote, sometimes asking experts for help on specialised subjects, and sometimes asking famous authors such as Tennyson or Browning to clarify what they meant when they used a word at a particular spot in some book of theirs. Apparently Murray would complain about Browning's habit of using words “without regard to their proper meaning” (p. 147), and I was surprised that Winchester doesn't mention the most notorious case of Browning's misuse of words, that of the nuns' twats.

Sadly, Murray did not live to see the dictionary finished, but by the time of his death in 1915 the dictionary had already become something of an institution and there was no doubt that the work would be carried on by others. It was eventually finished, with great fanfare, in 1928. (A full set was sold for 50 guineas at the time, but five years later the price dropped to 20; p. 239.)

This was followed by various supplements, then a second edition, and they're now working on a third. At the time when Winchester wrote this book, they seem to have still had some idea of perhaps publishing it on paper (in something like 40 volumes; p. 249), though I have the impression that they have by now almost completely abandoned that. Unsurprising, I guess; partly it's that looking things up on a computer is so much faster and easier, but partly it must be also that they are selling subscriptions to their website, so instead of buying the dictionary just once you have to keep paying them for as long as you want to keep using it.

Along the way the author mentions many of the minor characters involved in the dictionary, e.g. the ‘readers’ who were looking for interesting uses of words in books and copying them on slips for lexicographers to work on (surprisingly — or perhaps not — some of the most productive readers seem to have been insane in one way or another; p. 197). Some of the people who worked on the OED as lexicographers would later become famous in some other capacity; Tolkien is perhaps the best-known example, but what was new to me was that Julian Barnes also worked at the dictionary at one point (p. 244).

I really liked this book a lot, and would recommend it to anyone who is excited about dictionaries. I wonder if the other similar great dictionaries have similarly interesting histories. Certainly some of them have taken even longer than the OED to complete, e.g. the German DWB has apparently been published from 1854 to 1961, and the Swedish SAOB has been in progress since 1898 and isn't finished yet (Winchester says on p. 140 that the SAOB has been finished up to the letter S; but that was in 2003, and by now they have reached V, so they seem to be making steady progress). Hopefully I'll get to read a bit more about those other dictionaries some day as well.

Labels: , , ,