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After Augustus--Poetry in Rome

Updated on March 14, 2012

Today we are going to look at four poets of the Roman Empire. These poets are not living in the golden years of Augustus, but under later, less wholesome dictators. The Augustan age is over, and Rome, which has, as we seem to be developing today, a habit of looking back to its best years, which were somehow never the day one lived in and was not to be found in the future, is not made of gold and grand hopes, but of squabbles, assassinations, emperors who want to be artists, and armies that make emperors. There is a rot in the empire, and that rot often seems to be sitting at the apex of power, as do Caligula and Nero. Despite the conquest of Britain, which Julius Caesar had visited, under Claudius, the empire itself as a territory seems threatened, its territories subject to revolt and seizure, barbarian incursions and treacherous governors. One encounters in the ancient histories of these days an amorphous horror, a sense that something has gone horribly wrong, and the horrible deformation of the times is conveyed in the horrible deformities, the psychopaths and grotesques, that become the heads of state. This, far more than the very debatable "facts" of biography, are what one can draw from Suetonius's Twelve Caesars.

Relying on Suetonius for accurate biography is rather like relying upon Rush Limbaugh for a fair and balanced history of feminism. It is not what Suetonius was there to provide. Instead, Suetonius offers a series of discourses on men with power, on how they are affected by its possession and how they use it. Augustus used power well; his successors did not, and they end with the weakest, the worst, Nero. A new dynasty enters power, and, again, the founder uses power well, while his successors do not. History is repetition. There is a limited number of possible formations of the figure man, and once the series is done, it can only begin again. There is hope in this cycle of strong men and weaklings, competent leaders and incompetent fools: if you are under the thumb of a fool, a strong man will come soon to oust him.

Augustus gave Rome the Pax Romana, ending its civil wars and internal ruin. Tiberius, for all his faults, maintained that peace, and Caligula could not break it, only declaring war on the sea. Claudius had his British adventure, but war did not come to Rome, despite the murder of Caligula and the weakness of his successor. Nero, however, was the end of the Julians. Did he fiddle while Rome burned? Much like the slander that accompanied Marie Antoinette to the scaffold--'Let them eat cake'--the importance of the accusation lies in the fact that he could be imagined to do so, and to profit from the burning of the city, than in its objective reality. Fictions obtain a truth of their own, even when false, much as President Obama the Muslim is an article of faith among some Americans, even though it is manifestly untrue. It does not matter to those who announce it that it is untrue; for them the appellation expresses something fundamentally important, something fundamentally more important than mere truth. Nero, the artist, the most un-Roman of dictators--and this coming after an adolescent of destructive whims and a cripple--perched atop the Roman state, willful, tyrannical, and narcissistic. He did not think that the Romans mattered anymore, certainly not as they had mattered before, during the Republic; after all, he was the emperor, unique, all-powerful. Only civil war and ignominious death would rid of him of that misconception of his place and prove the power of the Roman army, which would never again be far off stage or out of the emperor's mind.

We begin, then, with Nero's 'tutor' and advisor, Lucius Annaeaus Seneca, (4 BCE - 65 CE), a Stoic philosopher and political man. Seneca was born in Corduba, Spain. He was exiled by Caligula, accused of adultery with the emperor's sister, but returned to teach Nero, not very effectively it would seem, for Nero showed few signs of stoicism. He was a philosopher, a Stoic, chained to the service of a tyrant who thought himself a supreme artist and thinker. In 65 CE, Seneca was compelled to commit suicide, accused of being party to a plot to assassinate Nero. In 68, Nero would die a suicide, or, some said, murdered by a crony as he did not have the manliness to end his own life as a proper Roman, in the Year of the Four Emperors. Seneca was also a writer of tragedies, and it is from his tragedies that his poems are drawn.

World Poetry's first selection from the work of Seneca is, ironically, translated by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a famed libertine and wit of the English Restoration court of Charles II, memorably played by Johnny Depp in The Libertine (2004). There was not much stoic about Rochester, but he did have a touch of Nero to him, although he, at least, had talent, which we are not certain Nero possessed at all, and if he did possess it, he did not express it. The selection is from The Trojans, taking as its subject death.

After death nothing is, and nothing, death:

The utmost limit of a gasp of breath.

Death, as Lucretius would agree, is not to be feared; it is nothing at all. There are no punishments after, no rewards.

Dead, we become the lumber of the world,

And to that mass of matter, shall be swept

Where things destroyed with things unborn are kept.

The body and the soul are alike destroyed; there is no favoritism of survival here, no eternities to ponder.

For Hell and the foul fiend that rules

God's everlasting fiery jails

(Devised by rogues, dreaded by fools),

With his grim, grisly dog that keeps the door,

Are senseless stories, idle tales,

Dreams, whimseys, and no more.

It is the present, the form of body and soul enmeshed in the present moment, that are important, that have a reality separate from imagination. The final breath is only that, the last; it is not a doorway, nor a passage to something more terrifying or more beautiful than that which has been. The fear of death is removed by vacating it of content, by focusing on form, on the material now and thisness of the body and the intellect.

Rochester is followed by Ted Hughes in a selection from Seneca's Oedipus. Again, the subject is death, but this is the death of a city, Thebes, suffering from plague. Disease, death, have taken possession of the city and its environs: its farms, its streets, even its army.

everybody ran from them the rich nations of the

rivers the marksmen of the hills the horsemen

everybody ran towns empty scattered but

not any more Thebes where are your armies now

Thebes they're finished the plague touched

them and they vanished finished rubbished into


Thebes is a funeral unable to keep up with the number of bodies it must bury, incapable of burying them or burning them fast enough, so that they rot in the streets. Even the animals brought to sacrifice are killed by plague before the priest's axe bites into them, and where successfully butchered, the animals are rotten on the inside. Thebes is a city under apocalyptic conditions:

everything green has withered the hills that

were cool with forest they're dusty ridges

deserts of brittle sticks the vine's tendril is white

it crumbles when you touch it

where are the gods the gods hate us the gods

have run away the gods have hidden in holes

the gods are dead of the plague they rot and stink


there never were any gods there's only death

The apocalypse swallows everything into a single, irremediable reality of decay and destruction, even faith. The gods can at first be imagined as participating in the suffering of the city, but then, a break, and an end of gods, an end of the past existence as well as presence of gods in the single being/non-being, Death.

After Seneca, we visit Petronius, another who died in 65 AD, another suicide following an accusation of treason. Petronius was no Stoic, however, but an elegant courtier, a man of taste, a master of the aesthetics of Nero's court. He is though to be the author of the Satyricon, an entertainment set in a field of sexual, culinary, and emotional excess. There would be no irony in Rochester translating Petronius, but a fitness of translator to text, for they were both wits, favored men in decadent times who made themselves the art of the period, an art of presenting their license as achievement. The selections from Petronius, then, are not meditations on death or physical decay, but the light fare of a seducer setting the scene for his performance. Ben Jonson provides the translation for "Doing, a Filthy Pleasure Is, and Short", which privileges the kiss and caress before consummation over consummation itself:

This hath pleas'd, doth please, and long will please; never

Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

The brief moment of consummation, however, is in its achievement immediately followed by decay, ending, death. It is the caress, the enticing beginning, that the voluptuary treasures, preferring courtship to success.

In "Man in the Middle of the Street", translated by Tim Reynolds, however, Petronius does not praise courtship or caresses without consummation, but relates the desperation of a man in search of companionship in the evening.

I rush down every alley in town

and reach the end of none

He is not a successful hunter. He finds himself in haste, alone, standing in the street without a human voice in hearing.

Am I the only man in the city without a bed of my own?

No pension plan, hard goddess, for your oldest campaigner?

A younger man would have been more attentive earlier and not found himself in such a predicament, or would have lovers enough waiting to be called upon, while the aging voluptuary cannot trust to luck to furnish him with flesh. He must be more proactive.

After Petronius, we encounter two scathing wits, two who would draw blood with their words and inspire others to do the same: Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis, 40-104 CE) and Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 50-127 CE). Seneca sought to teach, Petronius to entertain with style. Martial and Juvenal sought to excoriate.

To Martial is attributed the invention of the epigram, that form of wit whose soul is brevity and scarifying potential, and which Oscar Wilde would be famous for employing in his public career. Wit is, however, no longer a political weapon, for the empire is a toy for generals and soldiers, not for urbane men, and it is the follies of his associates and the petty perils of city living that Martial revels in reviling. With great matters far from their hands, men turn on one another in a vicious display of intellectual bullying and insult, raising pettiness to art.

You are a stool pigeon and

A slanderer, a pimp and

A cheat, a pederast and

A troublemaker. I can't

Understand, Vacerra, why

You don't have more money.

[Translated by Kenneth Rexroth]

Social duels do reveal something about the society in which they take place. Here, for example, Martial points to the connection between vice and success, viciousness and wealth, implying in doing so that the payment for virtue is negligible and a lack of success would go further to prove one's moral worth than applause and high position. The realities of material existence appear in such attacks as well, as in this translation by William Matthews concerning the purchase of a dinner:

You sold a slave just yesterday

for twelve hundred sesterces, Cal:

at last the lavish dinner you've

long dreamed about is in the pan.

Tonight! Fresh mullet, four full pounds!

You know I'll not complain, old pal,

about the food. But that's no fish

we'll eat tonight; that was a man.

Fellow artists are also treated to scathing treatment, again in a translation by William Matthews.

Ted's studio burnt down, with all his poems.

Have the Muses hung their heads?

You bet, for it was criminal neglect

not also to have sauteed Ted.

Martial excelled at the short form insult and satire, but Juvenal was more ambitious in his form, and his satires were lengthy expositions on the subject of social behavior and mores. World Poetry includes two selections from Juvenal, a lengthy imitation on London by John Holloway and a portion of the Tenth Satire as rendered by Samuel Johnson. I confess, the Holloway piece left me cold. It is far too contemporary, attacking and complaining about the modern city in the voice of a 'real Englishman' for whom everything is too different, too distant from Britain as it was/should be. The rhythms and phrasing did not linger with me. It did not leave me with a strong impression. Johnson, although antiquated, and this shows in the very steadiness of his rhythm, I found to be, overall, more successful. Johnson's subject is man, and the failure of reason.

Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate

O'erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,

Where wavering man, betrayed by venturous pride

To dread the dreary paths without a guide,

As treacherous phantoms in the mist delude,

Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good;

How rarely Reason guides the stubborn choice,

Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice

Johnson is aided, perhaps, by the fact that the problems spoken of in this piece, and his manner of speaking to them, are universal.

But scarce observed, the knowing and the bold

Fall in the general massacre of gold;

Wide-wasting pest! that rages unconfined,

And crowds with crimes the records of mankind;

For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws,

For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;

Wealth heaped on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys,

The dangers gather as the treasures rise.

And with the excoriation of man, with the vision of Rome's fallen virtues and mercenary men and mistresses, we leave pagan Rome. to return to it later when it is Christian, still stumbling towards its fall.


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