Saturday, October 20, 2018

BOOK: Marsilio Ficino, "On Dionysius the Areopagite"

Marsilio Ficino: On Dionysius the Areopagite. Vol. 1: Mystical Theology and The Divine Names, part 1. Edited and translated by Michael J. B. Allen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 66. Harvard University Press, 2015. 9780674058354. lxxi + 516 pp.

Marsilio Ficino: On Dionysius the Areopagite. Vol. 2: The Divine Names, part 2. Edited and translated by Michael J. B. Allen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 67. Harvard University Press, 2015. 9780674743793. xxxvii + 483 pp.

Here we have two more volumes of Ficino's Neoplatonic commentaries, this time about two works by Dionysius the Areopagite: the Mystical Theology and the Divine Names. It seems that Dionysius was a Greek theologian from the late antiquity who was heavily influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy, e.g. the work of Plotinus and the like. However, until the 19th century or so, it was widely thought that he actually lived in the 1st century, not in the late antiquity, and that he was a disciple of St. Paul. This probably made some people give his work an even greater weight than they otherwise would. (It also shows occasionally in Ficino's commentary, e.g. where he talks about how the late Neoplatonists were influenced by Dionysius, even though in reality it was the other way around.)

I found the structure of these books interesting. Ficino sliced the two works by Dionisius into fairly short sections, rarely more than two pages long, and often just one or two paragraphs. Then he translated each section and prefixed it with his own commentary, which is on average a little longer than Dionysius's text itself, but not by much. Sometimes he basically restates the same things that Dionysius said, just in a slightly more sober style (Dionysius himself seems to have been something of a mystic, struggling and straining at the boundaries of what human language can express about god and the like, and it shows in his style). Sometimes, however, he goes into much more detail and spends one or two pages of commentary on something that Dionysius hinted at briefly in one short paragraph. I had the impression that Ficino often tries to be more systematic, listing and explaining and even numbering things explicitly where Dionysius vaguely alluded at them in passing.

Thus, as you read the book, you sort of read each thing twice, first from Ficino's perspective and then from that of Dionysius. I thought this was fairly interesting and it was nice to see what Ficino made of Dionysius' enthusiastic but often hard-to-understand writing. Occasionally I did feel that his commentary helped me understand things a little better, or at least notice things that I wouldn't have noticed were present in Dionysius's text at all, although for the most part I of course still can't claim that I really understood anything much.

Still, I knew to expect something like this after my previous encounters with Ficino's Neoplatonic commentaries (see my previous posts about the Phaedros and the Parmenides), so I wasn't in any way disapponted. From my point of view, what we have here is another two volumes of Neoplatonist fairy-tales, readable enough in small increments (as long as I didn't worry too much about whether anything made any sense), though at the same time, having read these two volumes, I will be quite glad if the next few volumes of the I Tatti Renaissance Library don't contain any more Neoplatonism.

I read a Slovene translation of Dionysius a few weeks ago (see my post about it) and I don't really feel that reading Ficino's commentary has improved my understanding all that much. In particular, since his commentary more than doubles the total length of the text, the whole thing starts getting a bit long and unwieldy, and it was easy for me to start losing sight of the big picture. I wished that Ficino had introduced some sort of structure to the work, beyond just splitting e.g. the Divine Names into 351 short sections (and the Mystical Theology into 29). I also felt that in Ficino's version of Dionysius, the latter's style comes across as less excited and less bold in the use of language, the coining of words and the like, though I don't mean this as a complaint against Ficino; it might be due to the way he translated Dionysius into Latin, or it might be due to way that Michael Allen, the ITRL translator, then translated Ficino's translation from Latin into English, or it might be due to the fact that I was reading this in a foreign language, in which things always feel vaguer and blander than in one's own; or it might be due to the somewhat literal approach taken by the Slovene translator of Dionysius. Anyway, the fact is that as far as Dionysius' own style is concerned, I enjoyed it better in that Slovene translation than here as mediated through Ficino.

Mystic Theology

This is a fairly short work by Dionysius and is mostly on the subject of negative or apophatic theology. I remember seeing a little of this in Ficino's commentary on the Parmenides, and it was interesting to see more along these lines here. Basically, the idea is that god is so inscrutable and poorly accessible to our understanding that it's easier and safer to say what he isn't like than what he is like. (Of course, this also has its downsides, as pointed out in a classic Jesus and Mo strip: it's hard to use this approach to tell people what to do :))

I liked this sentence from Dionysius (12.1), which could almost be a summary of these two volumes: “We ought to affirm of God all that can be posited of things, God being the cause of all; and in turn with even better reason we ought to deny of God all these same attributes, God being more excellent than all things.” (Ficino says something similar in the Divine Names, 258.1–2).

Ficino points out (26.6–7) what they mean by negative statements about god: “When we deny the soul is a corporeal essence, we do not deny at the same time that it is a better essence, namely an incorporeal essence. Similarly, we deny that God is in the order of essence [. . .] yet we grant that God is absolute essence in a transcendent and simpler way. Again, in denying that God is life which is an act of essence, we do not prevent him from being life in the sense of being the cause of such an act.” Etc. etc.

In 6.1, Ficino has a nice classification of the cognitive faculties into four kinds: sensation, imagination, reason and intellect. (He then goes on to argue why god is inaccessible to all four.)

As we already saw in Ficino's commentaries on Plato, it was very important to the Neoplatonists that the One (the principle of unity) is higher than or prior to being. In 8.4–5, Ficino has some more arguments for why this is the case. They cannot be equal, he says, for then you would need yet another principle to unify them; and being cannot be higher than the One, as then unity, by participating in being, would lose its simplicity and wouldn't even be unity.

Divine Names

Frankly, I had the impression that it's mostly the second half or so of this work that is really about divine names; previously, he talks about various things, e.g. there's a fairly long discussion of the nature of evil, and I mostly wasn't really trying to keep track of whether the earlier parts of the work have some meaningful larger structure or not. As for the discussion of divine names, I found it fairly interesting. Perhaps calling them names is a bit confusing; it seemed to me that they were really more like properties. Dionysius talks about what it means when they say (e.g. in the bible) that god is good, life, great or small, like or unlike, old and young, etc. etc. (there's a nice summary by Ficino in 287.1). Ficino points out (11.1) that since we can't understand god directly, it's a good idea to study him through these names or appellations; these names do not “signify the nature itself of God” but at least “they make known the many and various goods that flow [. . .] from the divine goodness” (15.1). The only alternative to describing god through these names would be to not say anything, since he is so far above everything else (23.1).

The problem I had here is that it all seems to amount to little more than pointless playing with words. It's all along the lines of ‘yeah, well, we can say that god is life because all life comes from him, but then also that he is not life because obviously he isn't alive in the sense that regular living beings are alive, and he is super-duper-above life, etc.’ and you can replace life by being, goodness, etc. etc. and the argument always stays pretty much the same.

I often had a strong urge to yell at these people and tell them that if you are constantly getting into situations where you claim ‘A is B’ and ‘A is not B’ at the same time, then you are either wrong about at least one of these claims, or you are expressing yourself too vaguely. Basically a big part of Divine Names consist of Dionysius trying to explain such vague statements as ‘god is [not] life’ and arguing that, when you interpret them suitably, they make some sort of sense and they aren't contradictory at all. Maybe so, but it would have still been much better if they hadn't been making those vague statements to begin with.

Ah, but then I am missing the point again — this is religion, after all. Vagueness is no doubt a feature here, not a bug. It allows them to say pithy and impressive-sounding things about god on the one hand, and then on the other hand if anyone points out the self-contradictory nonsense in their statements, they can have someone like Dionysius produce excuses and explanations.

In his commentary to the Mystical Theology (11.3), Ficino actually explicitly acknowledges that yes, normally “affirming and denying something with regard to the same object cannot be simultaneously true [. . .] But the divine unity is so effective that within itself it can reconcile even contraries among themselves as one.” Interestingly, he points out a similarity between god as the highest thing and matter as the lowest thing: “So you will say that God is or has this or that thing or form, since He makes it; and then again that He does not have it because He is superior to it. But you will affirm that matter has or is this same thing because it receives it (passively); in turn you will deny that matter has this same thing because matter is inferior to it.”(11.4) Later (Divine Names, 89.5) he explains that god and matter are both without form, though of course for different reasons (“God is higher than every form and creates every form; but matter is lower than every form and is subject to all forms”). He says more about this in 132.1.

(I must admit that this talk of matter not having form strikes me as very odd, since I am used to think of matter as having all sorts of structure, atoms in intricate arrangements and the like; but I guess that to Plato and his ilk, both the words ‘matter’ and ‘form’ meant something rather different than to most of us today.)

Incidentally, these arguments along the lines of ‘god is X because he has created X’ strike me as very silly. By the same logic, you could argue that a carpenter is a chair, because he makes chairs...

Ficino has a nice paragraph (202.3) about how the different names of god refer to the various more or less broadly distributed “gifts that have come from divine providence”: ‘good’ for those that come to everything, entities and non-entities; ‘being’ for those that come only to entities; ‘life’ for those that come to living beings; etc.

There's an interesting analogy to try to explain how the trinity works (Ficino in 41.3, Dionysius in 42.1): imagine several lamps in the same hall; their light is united so that we can't see the light of each lamp separately; and yet it remains distinct, so that e.g. if we remove one lamp, its light goes away as well without affecting the others. But elsewhere Ficino admits (317.3): “But even the angels cannot know, by way of the understanding and the will, how three persons or subsistences may dwell in God, and yet on that account God be no less one, no less than the One. It is entirely beyond them.”

An interesting factoid from Ficino's commentary (93.5): he says that the Sun is 166 times larger than the Earth. I wonder how they estimated it. They weren't too far off — the wikipedia says that it's actually 109 times larger.

A funny example of the mania to classify everything that seems to have been so popular with the Neoplatonists, especially the later ones: “The Platonists postulate five lights: first the super-intelligible, second the intelligible, third the cogitable, fourth the imaginable, and fifth the visible.” (From Ficino's commentary, 97.1. And see 152.2 for another example of classification gone mad.) The last of these, of course, is the one we know from our normal everyday world. I guess we should be thankful that they resisted the temptation to add the semi-superintelligible, the subintelligible, the utterly inscrutable, the anti-intelligible, the edible, etc. etc. :))

If I remember correctly, there is an old philosophical debate about whether god does things because they are good, or are things good because god does them. Ficino ‘settles’ this by a simple assertion (122.4): “God does not, like us, will the things that He wills because the things in themselves are good, but to the contrary, because He wills, the things themselves are good.”

Ficino equates goodness with god and thus places it above being (134.7): “because all things are turned through their appetite back toward the Good, it serves as an argument for us that all entities have proceeded from this Good, and thus that it is superior to universal being”.

A funny-sounding consequence of placing god above being is that, in a certain sense, god does not exist :] Thus Dionysius says: “He neither was, nor will be; nor was He made, nor does He become, nor will He become. Rather, He does not even exist, but He is the being itself in all entities” (109.1).

Apparently, people used to believe that the ostrich keeps its eggs warm not by sitting on them like other birds, but by staring at them! :)) See Ficino's 57.1 and the translator's note 108 (p. 476): “according to the medieval Physiologus, ‘The ostrich lays eggs but does not brood them in the usual way: it sits facing them and stares at them intensely. They grow warm in the heat of its gaze, and the young are hatched.’ ”

On the subject of evil, Dionysius and Ficino mostly explain it as not something in itself, but simply as a shortage of good: “whatever is usually said to be bad is not entirely bad, but lacking good” (Dionysius in 155.2); “Every natural instinct and motion in any animate being that is proper to its own species is unquestionably good as it is providentially infused from the Good in order to preserve the species; and it is directed to the good of each. But the bad in animate beings is said to be some defect” (Ficino in 162.1).

From the translator's introduction (vol. 1, p. xxxii): “Given the difficulty of the enterprise, I must have erred and strayed like a lost goat, and I would welcome pastoral suggestions for corection or amendment.” :))

Labels: , , ,

KNJIGA: Dionizij Areopagit, "Zbrani spisi"

Dionizij Areopagit: Zbrani spisi. Uvod, prevod in opombe Gorazd Kocijančič. Slovenska matica, Ljubljana, 2007. Filozofska knjižnica, zv. 57. 587 str.

Pred časom sem prebral dva Platonova dialoga (Fajdrosa in Parmenida) in to zato, ker sem pri ITRL prišel do Ficinovih komentarjev teh dveh dialogov. Iz enakega razloga sem se zdaj lotil tudi branja Dionizija Areopagita, priznati pa moram, da sem njegove spise razumel prav tako malo kot npr. Platonovega Parmenida, mogoče še malo manj. Te stvari so že bolj teologija kot filozofija.

Knjiga se začne s precej obsežnim prevajalčevim uvodom, ki je bil še kar za silo razumljiv; med drugim vsebuje vsebuje lep in zanimiv pregled velikega vpliva Dionizijevih del skozi zgodovino. Po vsem videzu sodeč je možakar bil poznoantični neoplatonistični filozof, ki se je nato začel (z minimalnimi popravki v terminologiji) ukvarjati s krščansko teologijo; so pa zanj pred 19. stoletjem verjeli, da je v resnici živel v prvem stoletju in bil učenec apostola Pavla, zato so imeli njegovi spisi najbrž še večji vpliv, kot bi ga imeli sicer. Zelo nenavaden pa se mi je zdel zadnji del prevajalčevega uvoda, ki nas poskuša z nekakšnimi filozofskimi argumenti menda prepričati, da je v nekem smislu Dionizij res živel v prvem stoletju, četudi v resnici ni. (No, to sem gotovo narobe razumel, oz. bolje rečeno, sploh nisem ničesar razumel.)

Predvsem pa je pri uvodu name naredilo velik vtis to, koliko literature je prevajalec očitno preučil v ta namen in v koliko različnih jezikih. Vedno sem zavidal ljudem, ki jim gredo tuji jeziki dobro od rok. Moji poskusi v drugih tujih jezikih razen v angleščini so imeli tako malo uspeha, da nisem imel od njih nikoli nobene prave koristi. Imam pa glede tega uvoda eno manjšo pripombo: niso ga dobro lektorirali, kar je škoda, saj je drugače šlo v to knjigo več kot očitno ogromno truda, časa in razmišljanja. Pa tudi v preostanku knjige je ostalo še nekaj napak, sploh mestniku se zelo slabo piše :( [Na wikipediji sem prebral, da je imela stara grščina samo štiri ali pet sklonov; mogoče si pa prevajalec prizadeva, da bi jih imela slovenščina tudi? :))]

O samih Dionizijevih spisih bom težko kaj pametnega napisal, saj sem jih, kot sem že omenil zgoraj, preslabo razumel. Njegov slog pisanja je vse prej kot razumljiv, ampak saj se najbrž tudi ni prav veliko trudil, da bi bil. Je pa v njem čutiti nekakšno navdušenje; to, kar počne, ima več skupnega z mistično zamaknjenostjo kot s kakšnim hladnim razumarstvom. V svojem zanosu zelo rad kuje nove besede, stika po dve besedi skupaj ali natika obstoječim besedam predpone, kot so nad- in pred- in podobno. Ugibam, da so najbrž te stvari v grščini delovale malo manj čudno kot v slovenščini in da je Dionizij po njih posegal zato, ker je pač pisal o stvareh, o katerih je težko pisati in celo razmišljati, ker so pač tako daleč od naših vsakdanjih izkušenj. Na misel mi pride tista znana fraza „držati boga za jajca“ — mislim, da je nekaj takega Dionizij počel oz. se mu je vsaj zdelo, da to počne, tako da mu je res težko zameriti, da se je pri pisanju o takšnih nenavadnih stvareh malo zaletaval tudi ob meje človeškega jezika.

Mistično bogoslovje

V tem kratkem spisu so se mi zdele zanimive predvsem Dionizijeve zamisli o apofatični ali negativni teologiji. Ideja je, če sem prav razumel, nekako taka: ker je bog človeku bolj slabo razumljiv, je lažje in pametneje govoriti o tem, kakšen bog ni, kot o tem, kakšen je. Podobno so menda razmišljali tudi nekrščanski novoplatonistični filozofi, ki so imeli podobno situacijo s svojim podobno nedoumljivim „enim“ oz. principom enosti. Ta ideja se mi še kar dopade; če bi se je vsi verni ljudje dosledno držali, bi bilo najbrž precej manj zgage zaradi njih; težava je le v tem, da v praksi nikjer ne primanjkuje ljudi, ki se jim zdi, da zelo dobro vedo, kakšen bog je in kaj točno da hoče.

Tale dva odlomka se mi zdita lep primer Dionizijevega pristopa: „Njemu bi morali pridevati in o Njem zatrjevati vse pridevke bivajočih resničnosti — saj je Vzrok vseh stvari —, še bolj v pravem pomenu pa bi o Njem morali vse zanikati — saj nad-biva nad vsemi resničnostmi.“ (Str. 162.) „Molimo, da bi se znašli v tem mraku, ki je nad lučjo, in da bi prek nevidenja in nespoznanja videli in spoznali Njega, ki je nad uzrtjem in spoznanjem — prav s tem, da Ga ne bi videli ne spoznali, kajti to je resnično videnje in spoznanje“ (str. 166).

Kakšen poseben ljubitelj misticizma ravno nisem (že res, da človek z razumem ne pride prav daleč, ampak z misticizmom pa ne pride čisto nikamor), priznati pa moram, da v teh odlomkih je določen čar. Če drugega ne, sta dobro napisana.

Kasneje navaja Dionizij še cel kup konkretnih primerov stvari, ki jih v skladu s temi svojimi idejami o bogu zanika. Nabral jih je kar za dva dolga seznama: „ni niti nebitnosten, niti neživ, niti nebeseden, niti neumski, ni telo [. . .] ni niti duša niti um“ (str. 172); „Ne živi in ni življenje, ni ne bitnost ne vek ne čas [. . .] Ni ne eno ne enost“ itd. (str. 173).”

Božja imena

To je precej daljši spis od prejšnjega. Naslov sicer govori o imenih, ampak meni so se zdele te stvari bolj nekakšne lastnosti. Dionizij govori o tem, kaj pravzaprav mislijo, ko boga imenujejo (npr. v bibliji) s pojmi, kot so lepota (str. 227), dobro, življenje, bivajoče, modrost (str. 262), moč (str. 286), velik, majhen (str. 295–6), podoben (str. 299) in še mnogi drugi. Pri njegovih pojasnilih se ponavadi izkaže, da je treba te besede razumeti malo drugače kot v njihovih običajnih pomenih.

En še kar razumljiv odlomek na to temo je tudi v naslednjem spisu, na str. 334–5. Poučna sta se mi zdela tale dva komentarja iz sholiastov: „O Bogu se v pravem pomenu ne izreka niti življenje niti luč niti um niti bitnost: vse to o njem izrekamo le v tem smislu, da je On vzrok vsega tega. On je namreč nad tem in na drugačen način.“ (Op. 69 na str. 335.) „Kar se izreka o Bogu na način zanikanja, npr. neviden, neskončen in podobno, ne razkriva tega, kaj Bog je, ampak kaj ni.“ (Op. 72 na str. 335.)

Podobno piše Dionizij na str. 270: „Ne smemo misliti, da On nekaj je, drugo pa ni, niti da v nekem oziru je, v nekem pa ni, ampak da je vse — kot Povzročitelj vsega [. . .] in da je nad vsem, ker nadbitnostno nad-biva pred vsem. Zato se tudi o njem izreka vse obenem, a ni nič od vsega”. Ta odlomek se mi zdi tudi lepa ilustracija tega, kako se Dionizij muči na robovih človeškega jezika oz. gre včasih še malo čez rob. Ker se je odločil, da je o bogu težko reči, da biva, bo pa pač rekel, da „nadbitnostno nad-biva nad vsem“ (str. 319) — to se mi zdi malo ceneno... (Na str. 311 pa bog celo „biva nadbitnostno“.) Podobno govori kasneje o bogu kot življenju: „Kajti nad-življenje in življenje-začenjajoče Življenje je vzrok vsakega življenja“ (str. 276).

Še en ilustrativen odlomek na temo apofatične teologije (str. 280): „Božje resničnosti moramo misliti Bogu primerno. Zato moramo brezumno in brezčutno v primeru Boga pridevati na presežen način, in ne kot umanjkanje — kakor pripisujemo tudi ne(s)miselnost Nad(s)miselnemu, nepopolnost Nadpopolnemu in Predpopolnemu, nedotikljivi in nevidni mrak pa nedostopni Luči — pač na način preseganja vidne luči.“ In na str. 319: „Niti samega (imena) dobrote Mu ne pripisujemo kot nekaj, kar bi Mu ustrezalo, ampak Mu v koprnenju, da bi kaj umevali in povedali o oni neizrekljivi naravi, prvotno posvečamo to najčastitljivejše ime.“ Božanstvo je v resnici „nad vsakim imenom, nad vsako mislijo in spoznanjem“ (str. 320).

Ima tudi zanimivo poglavje o zlu (str. 240–60), ki po njegovem samo po sebi sploh ne obstaja, ampak je le „šibkost in nemoč in umanjkanje spoznanja“ (str. 260).

Nebeška hierarhija

S to hierarhijo so mišljeni angeli, ki naj bi jih bilo devet vrst, te pa razdeljene na tri „razporeditve“. Nekatere vrste imajo še kar smiselna imena (serafi, kerubi, angeli, nadangeli), nekatere pa precej čudna (prestoli, moči ipd.). Nikoli nisem prav dobro razumel, zakaj se je zdelo tem ljudem pametno zapletati svojo teologijo na tak način — mar ne bi bilo lepše in elegantneje imeti eno samo vrsto angelov, če jih že sploh moraš imeti? No, očitno so imeli cerkveni očetje pač drugačne ideje o tem, kaj je lepo in elegantno. Prevajalčev uvod razlaga potrebo po angelih takole: z njimi je „krščanska misel na svoj način reševala antični filozofski problem odnosa med absolutno enostjo Prapočela in mnogoterostjo sveta, ki ga izkušamo. Platonski eidosi so postali živa bitja.“ (Str. 62.)

Dandanes si angela ponavadi predstavljamo kot človeku podobno bitje z parom velikih operjenih kril, po možnosti večinoma bele barve; megleno pa se spomnim, da sem že slišal o tem, da znajo biti v bibliji angeli opisani na *bistveno* bolj bizarne načine. Nekaj tega omenja tudi Dionizij in poudarja, da je treba te reči razumeti simbolično, „da si jih ne bomo zamišljali v živinski obliki volov ali zverskem liku levov [. . .] nekakšnih ognjenih obročev onkraj neba [. . .] raznobarvnih konjev“ ipd. (str. 330) in si mislili, „da so nadnebeške resničnosti polne nekakšnih levjih in konjskih hord, mukajočega prepevanja hvalnic, ptičjih jat in drugih živali“ (str. 332) :))) Ena možna motivacija za takšne bizarne opise naj bi bila ravno ta, da se bodo zaradi njihove bizarnosti ljudje zavedli, da jih je treba razumeti metaforično; pri lepših opisih bi si lahko kdo pomotoma mislil, da so angeli „sijoči, čudoviti moški v ognjenih podobah, oblečeni v bleščečo obleko“ itd. (str. 337; gl. tudi op. 82 na njej).

Op. 169 na str. 348–9 opisuje zanimivo novoplatonično razdelitev „bivajočih resničnosti“ na štiri skupine: nežive (ali „zgolj bivajoče“), žive (vendar nerazumne), miselna breztelesna bitja (= angeli) in miselna telesna bitja (= ljudje). Podobno pravi tudi Dionizij sam, da so angeli „nebeške bitnosti“ (str. 354). Ta kategorizacija se mi še kar dopade, še vseeno pa mi ni očitno, zakaj se jim je zdelo, da morajo miselna breztelesna bitja tudi v resnici obstajati (in ne, „zato, ker se lepo vklapljajo v moj sistem“ ni dovolj dober razlog :P).

Po teh uvodnih opombah se Dionizij zares loti hierarhije angelov. Pravzaprav ga bolj kot delitev na devet vrst angelov zanima delitev na tri „razporeditve“; vsaka od slednjih obsega tri vrste, od katerih pa „ni nobena bolj bogooblična“ od druge (str. 357). Sodeč po prevajalčevi opombi (op. 212 na str. 356) prihajajo imena omenjenih devetih vrst iz biblije, ideja pa, da naj bi se jih razdelilo na tri skupine po tri, izhaja iz neoplatonizma.

Kakor sem si predstavljal Dionizijev opis teh reči, naj bi bilo tako, da karkoli že pač bog izžareva, to počasi pronica skozi omenjene tri razporeditve, tako da v vsako naslednjo pride malo manj kot v prejšnjo: „Srednjo razporeditev [. . .] očiščujejo, razsvetljujejo in dovršujejo bogopočelna razsvetljevanja, ki se ji tako, kot je drugotnemu primerno, dajejo prek prve hierarhične razporeditve“ (str. 366–7). Prva razporeditev „vodi kvišku drugo hierarhijo k nadpočelnemu Počelu in Zamejitvi vsake urejenosti, druga hierarhija vodi kvišku tretjo in tretja našo“ (str. 375), torej ljudi. O tem zadnjem koraku, torej povezavi med najnižjimi angeli in ljudmi, pravi: „bogoslovje [. . .] imenuje za vladarja judovskega ljudstva Mihaela, druge angele pa za vladarje drugih ljudstev“ (str. 371), torej je vsakemu ljudstvu dodeljen po en angel.

Na koncu Dionizij še nekaj časa razlaga metaforični pomen raznih podrobnosti v opisih angelov; celo za najbolj bizarne kombinacije kril, oči in podobnega najde dober izgovor (str. 384). [Ob tem sem se spomnil na tisti strip, v katerem se Jesus in Mo posmehujeta hinduizmu: “Arms and legs and *trunks* everywhere!” :))] Ima nekaj zanimivih stvari o simboliki raznih stvari pri opisih angelov: ogenj (še posebej pri serafih; str. 389), „človekoobličnost“ (str. 390–3), kovine, živali, kolesa itd. (str. 396–9).

Cerkvena hierarhija

To je po vsem videzu sodeč podobna stvar kot angelska hierarhija v prejšnjem spisu, le da obsega ljudi. Dionizij pravi, da je „skupni cilj vsake hierarhije [. . .] stalna ljubezen do Boga [. . .] videnje in védenje svete resnice“ ipd. (str. 409). Pravzaprav se bo izkazalo, da opisuje v tem spisu Dionizij tri tronivojske hierarhije (str. 464): hierarhijo cerkvenih obredov, hierarhijo duhovščine in hierarhijo laikov. [Človek je bil tako obseden s trojicami, da sumim, da je za večerjo vsak dan pojedel skledo triperesne detelje :))]

Prvi obred je krst, ki ga Dionizij opisuje na str. 414–18. Predstavljal sem si, da dandanes krst izgleda tako, da dojenčka poškropijo z nekaj kapljami žegnane vode, ampak pri Dioniziju so bile te reči očitno precej bolj zapletene. Krst opisuje kot nekaj, kar se opravi na odraslem človeku, kar je imelo verjetno v zgodnjekrščanskih časih smisel, ker je bila večina njihovih članov verjetno ljudi, ki so se šele v odrasli dobi spreobrnili iz drugih ver. (Pravzaprav sem sicer mislil, da je Dionizij pisal tako pozno v antiki, da je bilo poganov takrat že zanemarljivo malo in bi pričakoval, da je bila takrat večina ljudi krščenih že ob rojstvu.) Ko pride Dionizij do točke, kjer krščenca sezujejo in slečejo (str. 416), sem si že mislil — ho ho ho, zdajle ga bodo pa kar nategnili! — no, pa so ga le namazilili z nekakšnim oljem. Nato Dionizij še nekaj časa govori o metaforičnem pomenu raznih detajlov pri obredu krsta.

Potem se se na podoben način loti še obhajila. Slednje je tukaj sicer prevedeno kot „zedinjenje“, kar je po vsem videzu sodeč zelo dobeseden prevod izvorne grške besede koinonia (str. 427); tako sem se naučil vsaj tega, od kod pride angleška beseda communion za obhajilo — očitno iz nekega prav tako dobesednega prevoda tiste grške besede v latinščino.

Pri Dionizijevih opisih teh obredov me je neprijetno presenetilo, kako pogosto poudarja, da morajo biti pri določenih pomembnejših delih obredov izključeni določeni ljudje (ponavadi „katehumeni, energumeni in tisti, ki delajo pokoro“*; str. 429, 435, 437–39, 454), ker očitno niso dovolj čisti oz. vredni, da bi tistim delom obreda prisostvovali. Ta prekleta človeška želja po ekskluzivnosti, po tem, da nekatere ljudi izključiš in se zato sam pri sebi bolje počutiš, očitno res prav nikoli ne miruje. Phe. Če bi bil jaz bog, bi bila menda ena od prvih stvari, ki bi jih rekel, nekaj v stilu „je**te se, bedni smrtniki, od vseh vas sem enako oddaljen, prav nobene razlike ni zame, kdo prisostvuje kateremu obredu“.

[*Preseneča me, da pri vsej poplavi prevajalčevih opomb tukaj ni nobenega pojasnila, kaj tisti dve impresivni grški besedi sploh pomenita. Sodeč po wikipediji so katehumeni ljudje, ki se šele seznanjajo s krščanskimi nauki in se še niso krstili; energumeni pa naj bi bili ljudje, ki so jih obsedli zli duhovi :))]

Sicer nas veselje do ekskluzivnosti pri človeku, kot je Dionizij, najbrž ne bi smelo presenetiti; sodeč po nekaterih prevajalčevih opombah Dionizij pogosto uporablja izraze, ki so bili pred tem povezani predvsem z raznimi poganskimi misterijskimi kulti. Tam pa je bil seveda cel smisel vsega skupaj ravno v tem, da kot član dobiš dostop do ekskluzivnih skrivnosti — cenena marketinška poteza, ampak ne dvomim v to, da je dobro delovala. In najbrž se je nekaj te mentalitete pač nalezel tudi Dionizij, saj vidimo, da ima rad misticizem in da je ves navdušen ob misli na to, v kakšne božje skrivnosti da prodira. (Poleg tega se mi zdi, da ima ekskluzivnost pri obredih še naslednji koristni praktični učinek: če pokažeš svoje verske obrede nekomu, ki se še ni dovolj globoko pogreznil v tvoj kult, se zna zgoditi, da se mu bodo zdeli trapasti in se mu bo še pravi čas posvetilo: „hej, zakaj izgubljam čas z ljudmi, ki pri polni zavesti počnejo takšne neumnosti?“)

No, po opisu obhajila preide Dionizij na naslednji obred, ki je menda še bolj ekskluziven: gre ze nekakšno posvetitev olja (ki ga potem uporabljajo za to, da pri orgijah stvari bolj gladko tečejo pri prej opisanih obredih). Nad tem sem že godrnjal v enem od svojih prejšnjih postov, ampak ne morem si kaj, da ne bi bil že spet malo razočaran: na eni strani vsa tista globoka in kosmata teologija (oz. deloma mogoče tudi filozofija), na drugi strani pa te bizarne ideje o posvečevanju olja. Kako se je lahko komu zdelo, da to dvoje lepo spada skupaj? Kako da se ni nihče nikoli za hip ustavil in vprašal: „hej, zakaj pravzaprav počnemo takšne traparije? Saj nismo več otroci, ki se igrajo v peskovniku...“ Kakorkoli že, Dionizij se takih stvari vsekakor ne sprašuje, ampak se le s svojo običajno gostobesednostjo navdušuje nad globljim pomenom vseh mogočih podrobnosti pri obredu (str. 455–61).

To je bila torej zdaj hierarhija treh vrst obredov (krst, obhajilo in posvetitev olja), nato pa Dionizij opiše (str. 462–9) še to, kar sem si pravzaprav pod cerkveno herarhijo predstavljal na začetku: namreč tri stopnje oz. „razporeditve“, kot jim on pravi, znotraj cerkve: diakoni, svečeniki in hierarhi (= škofje). Govori tudi o vzporednicah med temi raznimi hierarhijami (angelsko iz prejšnjega spisa in tema dvema tukaj); to, da ima vsaka ravno tri nivoje, ni naključje, ampak je pač on po malem obseden s tronivojskimi hierarhijami. V cerkveni hierarhiji vsak višji nivo pomaga dvigovati nižje k bogu (str. 465), podobno kot smo to videli prej pri angelski hierarhiji. Dionizij opiše tudi obrede posvečevanja v te tri stopnje duhovščine in se pri tem seveda ne more izogniti raznim bizarnim detajlom: bodočemu hierarhu položijo med obredom biblijo na glavo, svečeniki upognejo obe nogi, diakoni pa le eno (str. 473–4).

Po teh treh svečeniških redovih pridejo na vrsto še trije „dovrševani redovi“ (str. 475; kar menda pomeni približno to, kar bi si jaz predstavljal kot laike): (1) tisti, ki se izločajo iz prej omenjenih obredov (torej ti, ki jim je prej rekel katehumeni, energumeni in tisti, ki delajo pokoro — tukaj sicer teh izrazov ne uporablja, je pa iz njegovega opisa videti, da gre za iste stvari); (2) „sveto ljudstvo“ (str. 476, torej običajni laični verniki); in (3) menihi. Spis se zaključi še z opisom pogrebnega obreda, pri katerem se je Dionizij, neverjetno, uspel upreti skušnjavi, da bi še iz njega naredil tronivojsko hierarhijo.


Ohranjenih je deset Dionizijevih pisem, večinoma raznim duhovnikom. V povprečju so precej kratka in v njih Dionizij pojasnjuje kakšno podrobnost ali tehnikalijo iz svojih idej, tako da si z njimi nisem vedel prav veliko pomagati. Malo daljše le je osmo pismo, v katerem Dionizij odgovarja nekemu menihu Demofilu, ki se je, kolikor sem uspel razbrati iz pisma, pritoževal nad nekim duhovnikom, češ da je „brezbožnež in grešnik“ (str. 518) in podobno.

Dionizijev odgovor me je precej razočaral; v njem se zadrto drži načela, da sme kritika in ukrepanje ob morebitnih napakah v hierarhijah iti le od zgoraj navzgor in da nižji nikakor ne smejo soditi višjim. To ponavlja kar naprej, vsakič z malo drugačnimi besedami, učinek pa je vseeno tak, kot da bi se že malo vrtel v krogu (str. 518–24). Spomnimo se, da so v hierarhiji, kakršno je Dionizij opisal v prejšnjem spisu, menihi del laične hierarhije in so zato nižji od vseh vrst duhovnikov. Dionizij zato zdaj strogo okrca Demofila, ker si je drznil kritizirati nekoga nad sabo.

„Primerno je, da je vsakdo pozoren sam nase in da si ne želi doumeti višjih in globljih reči, ampak da razmišlja le o tistih, ki so mu naročene v skladu z njegovo vrednostjo.“ (Str. 522.) „Ti sam torej odredi želji, razburljivosti in mišljenju to, česar so vredni; tebi pa naj to odrejajo Božji diakoni, njim svečeniki, svečenikom hierarhi, hierarhom pa apostoli in apostolski nasledniki.“ (Str. 524–25.)

Depresivno. Kaj naj človek ob tem reče drugega kot: preklete naj bodo vse hierarhije in stokrat, stotisočkrat preklet naj bo vsak kreten, ki se mu kadarkoli zdi primerno postavljati ljudi v hierarhijo in nakladati o tem, da bi nekateri zaradi svojega položaja v njej ne smeli početi določenih stvari, ki jih nekateri drugi lahko!

Edina kolikor toliko spodobna ideja pri vsem skupaj je odlomek, kjer Dionizij pravi, da tisti, ki ne ravnajo v skladu s svojim položajem v hierarhiji, v resici tega položaja sploh nimajo: „Če je torej razporeditev svečenikov razsvetljujoča, je tisti, ki ni razsvetljujoč, povsem odpadel od svečeniškega reda in moči [. . .] Meni se že zdi, da je takšen človek objesten domišljavec [. . .] On ni svečenik, ni — ampak je sovražnik, prevarant“ (str. 522–3). Toda že takoj zatem vseeno doda: „In vendar Demofilu ni dovoljeno tega popravljati.“ (Str. 523.)

To se sicer v teoriji lepo sliši, v praksi pa ne more imeti nobenega učinka. To bi delovalo le, če bi takšne odpadnike nemudoma udarila strela z neba. Ker pa jih ne, ostanejo večinoma čisto lepo na položajih kot popolnoma normalen del hierarhije in lahko še naprej počenjajo svoje nečednosti. V prevajalčevem uvodu je nekaj zanimive diskusije o tem pismu (str. 76–78), kjer sicer prizna, da so Dionizijeve poglede na hierarhijo kasneje mnogi izkoriščali za avtoritarne namene, vendar se mu zdijo Dionizijeve blage koncesije iz prejšnjega odstavka „nekaj precej subverzivnega“ in „ekleziološko vzemirljive“. No, očitno je nekatere ljudi precej lahko vznemiriti :))


Kaj naj rečem za konec? To je nedvomno zelo dobra knjiga, le da jaz pač nisem pravi bralec zanjo. Ampak saj to sem vedel že vnaprej. Še vedno se mi zdi po malem škoda, da je toliko pametnih ljudi porabilo toliko časa za takšne blodnje, ampak po drugi strani (1) kdo sem jaz, da bi jim to očital (kamenje, steklene hiše itd.); in (2) konec koncev bi bilo lahko še slabše (lahko bi postali, kaj pa vem, ekonomisti, oglaševalci, postmodernisti ali kaj podobnega :]).

Labels: , ,

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: , ,