cloudy symbols of a high romance

the ‘ten books that have touched you’ meme

I was tagged for the book meme by nabbyadams:

Rules: In a text post, list ten books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag [ten] friends, including me, so I’ll see your list. Make sure you let your friends know you’ve tagged them.

In no particular order (and assuming we can include non-fiction — otherwise I’d like to replace Rubicon and No Logo with The Secret Garden and Love In A Cold Climate):

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula Le Guin

The Owl Service, Alan Garner

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

Warrior Scarlet, Rosemary Sutcliff

Rubicon, Tom Holland

Cards of Grief, Jane Yolen

The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

No Logo, Naomi Klein

In conclusion: I am never again going to read as intensely as I did when I was 9 or 10. (and to a lesser extent, when I was 18/19.)  I think it must have been all the re-reading. (whereas now I try to read as much as I can, instead of the same things over and over.)

Tagging: villierscy, foxship, pothos, poniatowskaja, carolinableubelle, patati-et-patata, biphigenia, andshewas, poorshadowspaintedqueens, nabbyadams……and anyone else who’d like to do it, as it was a huge struggle to pick just ten of you! :D

The Last Days of Troy

A couple of weeks ago I went to see The Last Days of Troy at the Globe, also known as possibly the least homoerotic version of the Iliad I have ever seen.  I don’t think it’s deliberately so (it’s not as if Achilles is especially kind to Briseis either), simply that Simon Armitage is not at all interested in Achilles and Patroclus - and when for me they’re the heart of the story, it feels weird for them to be just good friends (if that - there was no chemistry there at all), and for Achilles’ grief to be so underpowered. (the actor playing Achilles was the weakest link in the cast by far—it’s a horrible part to play, because he’s not quite human, or more than human, but it wasn’t until he was mangling Hector’s corpse, and then agreeing to return it to Priam, that it felt convincing.)  Patroclus doesn’t even get to make the decision to put on Achilles’ armour because of his own concern for the Greeks — instead Odysseus manipulates him into it.

Rather, Armitage’s priorities are Helen, and the extent to which she was simply a pretext for conquest; it’s a very cynical, anti-war version of the Iliad, which says that loss outweighs any abstract concept of honour.  Lily Cole’s taken a lot of slating in reviews for being emotionless, but the whole point is that Helen is ambiguous in her feelings and loyalties, unknowable, as distant and alien as the moon.  And in that sense she does really well.  The Trojans on the whole are incredibly interesting in this version; I adored their louche, sensuous Paris, who manages to make being a lover and not a fighter, a favourite of Aphrodite, somehow endearing, and I was fascinated by the relationship between Helen and Hector — how he’s completely unaffected by her, and should despise her for the doom she’s brought to his country, but is too noble to do so, and if anything gets caught up in bloodlust, in the possibility of destroying the Greeks.  Hector never really caught my interest in the poem, but Simon Harrison does a great job of making him real and likeable.  Priam’s sharp, perceptive wisdom was also fascinating; the only one I didn’t care for as much was Andromache, who was very cool and stern.

The Greeks, on the other hand, don’t get as sympathetic a treatment; Odysseus is very clever, but a brisk warrior rather than a dazzling trickster, and Agamemnon doesn’t feel like much more than a harsh ruler. (not least as we never see Menelaus on stage, and Agamemnon’s protectiveness of him was one of the things that gave him depth in the poem.)  I was also very disappointed at the lack of my favourite, Diomedes!  (in fact Odysseus, Agamemnon, Achilles and Patroclus are the only Greeks in the play, so there’s no Phoinix, no Nestor, etc.)

As for the gods, we only ever see Zeus, Hera, Athene and Thetis (so no Apollo or Aphrodite, for instance) — one thing I will give this play credit for is that I really liked its Hera, who was smart, practical, determined and simply happened to favour the Greeks rather than being hysterically vindictive about it, and her warm relationship with Athene.

All in all I keep saying to myself, great banquet of Homer, and it’s certainly true that there are so many angles from which you can retell this story, but it still feels strange that something which was billed as a straight retelling (and which hits a lot of the famous moments from the poem, such as Astyanax being afraid of Hector in his helmet, and even the catalogue of ships! there’s a scene where Zeus talks about what each Greek nation has brought to the battle) isn’t about Achilles discovering his humanity, as you would expect; instead it’s about Helen and just what it is she really inspires in people.


James Zark - Never Mind The Mutants

  • Debbie Harry as Jean Grey
  • Henry Rollins as Colossus
  • Iggy Pop as Angel
  • Johnny Rotten as Ice Man
  • Glenn Danzig as Wolverine
  • Ian Curtis as Cyclops
Source: ryley-stbatman

planted on the starlit golden bough

I was asked elsewhere for my feelings on the Byzantine Empire, and thought I’d share it here too!

Why do I love the Byzantines?  I think it’s because I love the Romans so much, because this quote sums up how I feel about them:

The Romans have everything I like about humans and the world. They are brutally ruthless, to an extent most people can’t believe; they have an ambition and belief in their own greatness which is awe-inspiring; they have an inventiveness and verve and fizzing, continual activity throughout the empire that – to me – gives them a level of humanity that is exciting and hilarious and frightening. They are nothing like us and everything like us. They complained about the young people, and wrote novels about men becoming donkeys. They crucified dogs and buried men and women alive. They wrote poetry and philosophy and terrible plays. They accused their leaders of everything from incest to forgery to the premeditated murder of houseflys (trufax). They conquered the world in the first century and, in so many ways, they still rule it today. I named my fish after the First Triumvirate (they died in reverse order). I have a cat named after Augustus’s wife. I visit the bust of Augustus in the British Museum as often as possible, sometimes weekly, just for a chat. I like them, is what I’m saying.

Well, not the talking to Augustus’s bust in the British Museum (just, it’s Augustus, why even would you) but otherwise Emma Southon is right.  I like and admire the Greeks, the talkative, cultured Athenians especially, but I love the Romans, and it’s because they’re a civilisation of Mars and Venus, of blood and passion; driven, ferocious, proud, companionable, kind, utterly whole-hearted.  Tom Holland compares them to the dinosaurs, and he’s right, in the sense that they’re that splendid, that terrible, that absolutely alien and that marvellous.

And so when I discovered that the fall of the Western Empire didn’t have to be the end, that they kept going for another thousand years, I couldn’t not be interested!  But what I love best about the Byzantines is that they aren’t just moar Romans.  Rather, they occupy this incredibly liminal space, very much neither one thing or the other: Eastern and Western, ancient and medieval, Christian and pagan, brutal and sophisticated, Greek and Latin.  That contradiction is what really fascinates me.

Also I’m incredibly weak for the deadly decadent court trope, and (as much as it’s looking at them with the inferiority complex of the Latins who came there during the Crusades to say this) the Byzantine court was one of the deadliest and the most decadent.  My absolute favourite quote about them is:

Ever since our rough crusading forefathers first saw Constantinople and met, to their contemptuous disgust, a society where everyone read and wrote, ate food with forks and preferred diplomacy to war, it has been fashionable to pass the Byzantines by with scorn and to use their name as synonymous with decadence.

I mean, what kind of people like reading and forks?!

As for book recs, it’s a sadly neglected period, both in fiction and non-fiction, but here's a comprehensive list (which has reminded me I've failed to mention Julian and The Dragon Waiting below—do read both of those), and personally I would suggest:

  • John Julius Norwich’s history of Byzantium: the only place worth starting.  Get the three-volume version (The Early Centuries, The Apogee, The Decline and Fall), not the one-volume A Short History Of; I know it’s tempting (especially as the short version is available on Kindle!), but it sucks out all the human interest, making the book into a parade of names.  And if you’re anything like me, you’re into history for the funny anecdotes, right? :D  Julius Norwich can be a bit of an old Tory (e.g. his opinion of Theodora is ‘no better than she should be’) but he writes like a dream, and I will forgive much for a fancy prose style.  Don’t go anywhere near Judith Herrin; I’ve not read her work but the Amazon reviews talk about lots of mistakes.  If you’re more of an auditory learner, there’s a podcast about the history of Byzantium; I haven’t tried it yet but it looks more leisurely and more willing to give wider context than Mike Duncan’s about Rome, so I’ve got high hopes.  Once you’re done with Norwich, you might like to try Cyril Mango’s (seriously, that’s his actual name!) Oxford History of Byzantium; I’ve not yet read it but I think it approaches the Empire from more of a social history perspective - e.g. religion, architecture - instead of being a list of rulers.
  • Stella Duffy, Theodora (and its sequel, The Purple Shroud): I never quite know how to talk about this book, because I do so want everyone to read it and I’m terrible at reccing.  What I will say is that Stella Duffy knows what it’s like to be working-class, to be a performer, to have faith, to be queer (her Theodora has a brief affair with a dancer, Macedonia, before meeting Justinian) and so what she writes feels real; as if it’s being imagined from the inside out, whereas most historical fiction is the other way around, a self-conscious effort to place yourself into another existence.  And her recreation of Theodora is a perfect example of how to write a flawed character and keep the audience’s sympathy, how a truly feminist writer allows women to be everything they are, even if that everything is not always nice or appealing.
  • Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond: this isn’t so much about ancient Romans as it’s about a crisis of faith: Constantinople as temporal and spiritual kingdom of God.  Also there are camels.
  • L Sprague de Camp, Lest Darkness Fall: I side-eyed this book for so long, because the plot summary appeared to be “an archaeologist GOES BACK IN TIME! and PREVENTS THE DARK AGES!”  And as much as I love the Romans, I do feel slightly uncomfortable at the idea that everything between the fall of the Western Empire and the Renaissance was cold, muddy, horrible and primitive.  But in fact I think that’s not quite it?  Rather, it’s about preventing the fall of the Goths, not Romans; de Camp knows that Justinian’s reconquest was a marvellous, misguided dream that was never going to last, that weakening the Visi- and Ostrogoths only allowed the Lombards (who had far less of a sense of romanitas) to take over, and so Martin Padway (the archaeologist in question) finds himself having to block brilliant and deadly Belisarius, to prevent the Byzantines from retaking their ancestral heartlands. But can anyone change history that much, and what would it mean if they did?
  • David Drake and Eric Flint, Belisarius series: Belisarius was so decent and honourable, so modest and talented, that it’s impossible not to want a happy ending for him; to wish that Antonina were loving and faithful, that Justinian were more trusting and gave him the resources he needed.  And these books are it!  They’re about two future posthuman/transhuman societies who fight a proxy war through the Byzantines and the Malwa Empire of India, and so Belisarius has to defeat the Malwa through forming alliances with the Persians, the Axumites of Ethiopia and other Indians opposed to them.  (it’s really hard to explain the setup simply and convey why it’s good, so here are the Wikipedia and TV Tropes entries.)  While there’s a good dose of military strategy in these books, there’s also plenty of political intriguing, twisty plotting, and badass adventure, and my overall impression from a quick skim is that they’re just immensely fun. (they’re also easily available for free on the internet, if you know where to look…..) Definitely give them a try if you came away from Count Belisarius feeling crushed.

"And the totally predictable, clichéd falsehood I see in at least three-quarters of all works of HF written in English and set in this period is the gratuitous, over-the-top exaggeration of the “horrors” of the Revolution. These hysterical, way-out-of-proportion depictions appear in everything from A Tale of Two Cities, the Top Literary Classic, to the witless romantic fluff of the Pimpernel novels, to a recently published atrocity that I sampled (with shudders and unable to get past the first pages) not long ago, whose author had apparently done no other historical research than watch a bad movie of The Scarlet Pimpernel and seems to be firmly convinced….no need to look up pointless things like facts….that even Nazism couldn’t match the evil, evil French Revolution in sheer bloodshed."

— Susanne Alleyn, Medieval underpants and other blunders

(via meandmylackofideas)

Source: valinaraii


And oh—in slips Corinna, her thin dress unsashed,
hair rivering down her pale neck,
just as lovely Semiramis would steal into a bedroom,
they say, or Lais, so loved by men.

Jane Alison reads from her new translation of Ovid’s poetry of love and transformation — Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid.

Listen to more recordings of Jane Alison on our Soundcloud channel.

(via classicsenthusiast)

Source: oupacademic / oupacademic

Question from eccecorinna

As that weird person who reads your tags... man, what IS it with people saying the Aeneid just plagiarizes Homer? Like you, I get so annoyed. Vergil very expertly and very beautifully REMIXES Homer to work out tough Roman cultural paradoxes relevant to his time, and he doesn't get enough credit for it!



Heee, there’s no need to apologise for reading my tags!  I’m pleased to know my ramblings are interesting to someone. :D  I’m only sorry for not responding to this sooner; I was trying to find something more intelligent to say than “yes, this”, but, well…….this.  I haven’t yet read the Odyssey, so I know there’s a whole dimension of the Aeneid I’m missing, but I loved the multifaceted way in which it reflected the Iliad; how the events and characters of that poem were echoed and reconfigured, so that Turnus could be from one angle, at one moment Achilles, at another Hector, and the same for Aeneas.  It’s not ‘just’ fanfic/plagiarism; it’s a deliberate commentary. 

And also, it’s a poem about recurrence; about how everywhere, time and again, people see their world fall in and have to create it anew.  It treats the aftermath of the Civil War with such humanity and wisdom, and the more so for talking about Trojans and Carthaginians instead, for making that rebirth part of a wider sweep.

But tell me more about the tough Roman cultural paradoxes? :D  I’ve never studied the Aeneid formally - or indeed classics formally - and am completely winging it, always, when it comes to talking about Romans.  A lot of it is an intuitive understanding based off Tom Holland’s Rubicon, because once you understand the Roman mindset so much else just clicks into place.

Oh, and while we’re discussing stupid comments about the Aeneid, what about people who dismiss it as Augustan propaganda??  Just……ugh.  I can see how you might think so, especially in its more strident debellare superbos moments, but at the same time, I think at that point something was needed which could assuage the Romans’ deep uneasiness about empire and the shattering blow the Civil War had been to their spirit; something which could assure them it was right, and the will of the gods, without ever looking away from the death and tragedy and brutality that goes with that sort of glory.  Even Ovid, who certainly had no love for Augustus, writes about the transition from Republic to Empire in the Metamorphoses in a way which is meant to comfort and reassure. (or so I think, anyway!)

And also, it’s a poem about recurrence; about how everywhere, time and again, people see their world fall in and have to create it anew. It treats the aftermath of the Civil War with such humanity and wisdom, and the more so for talking about Trojans and Carthaginians instead, for making that rebirth part of a wider sweep.

Yes! Precisely. Which is why the whole remixing of prior literatures (not just Homer, but also various tellings of Medea, elegiac love poetry, etc.) is… part of the point, I think? Everything old is new again, and old things recur, but you rebuild the old things in light of new knowledge. Just like you build a new poem out of old ones.

But tell me more about the tough Roman cultural paradoxes?

Well, the big one here is about how the Romans see waging war as necessary to maintaining peace, and I think the Aeneid plays with that a lot. Peace always comes with a price. I say some more about that below.

I also had this running theme in all my undergraduate papers about how the actions one takes to be the Ideal Roman Male also ultimately end up destroying the context in which the Ideal Roman Male can exist. I know I had thoughts about how this relates to the Aeneid, but I have to yank them back from five years ago before I can discuss the more articulately.

(In general, the linking of existence and destruction, and the idea that existence eventually IMPLIES destruction, is a thing that happens a lot in the Aeneid. Vergil plays on words when he juxtaposes urbs antiqua fuit and urbs antiqua ruit in books one and two, and that is a very very serious play on words that has implications for the whole epic.)

Oh, and while we’re discussing stupid comments about the Aeneid, what about people who dismiss it as Augustan propaganda??

I think the whole thing that bothers me, with people dismissing the Aeneid as Augustan propaganda, is that many readers turn it into a yes or no question. Was Vergil 100% pro-Augustus all the time, or was he stealthily sticking it to the man for the duration of the epic? And since the Hooray For Augustus narrative is the one most easily read, people usually assume that this is the dominant political ideology running through the book.

But on closer examination, Vergil seems a lot more ambivalent. Not harshly critical—but ambivalent and uncertain. The Trojans settle in Italy and will, according to Juno and Jove’s negotiated end, achieve a peace—but at a great price. Is that peace worth the price? Can it prevent the battles of the future? It’s impossible to say right then. In addition, for all this to happen, the Trojans must assimilate into Latin culture and become Roman. They must lose themselves to preserve themselves.

Likewise, at the time Vergil is writing, Augustus has established peace, but at a great price. Is that price worth it? In some ways yes, in others no. Vergil acknowledges the good he has perceived Augustus has done for Rome without dismissing people’s potential uneasiness about it. In many ways it was impossible to tell exactly what course things would take at the time and I’m sure a lot of Vergil’s readers just weren’t sure. To them, the Augustan regime must have been very strange just because it was so very NEW, dressed as it was in the trappings of old Roman, republican values.

Modern readers have the benefit of historical hindsight, so I often feel our feelings on Augustus—positive or negative—cloud our readings of the text. But the Romans under Augustus did not have that hindsight. They could only look at past examples in their mythology and history, such as Carthage and Troy, and try to make guesses.

One of my other Latin teacher friends suggests that Augustus letting the Aeneid survive and promoting the hell out of it was a brilliant move—because in many ways the book still comes down on Augustus’s side, but it also gives vent to the uneasiness and uncertainty and even anger people were feeling at the time. And I’m inclined to agree with my friend. I don’t agree with everything Augustus did and there’s some messed up stuff lurking behind the fatherly veneer, but dang if promoting the Aeneid wasn’t a brilliant political move.

Even Ovid, who certainly had no love for Augustus, writes about the transition from Republic to Empire in the Metamorphoses in a way which is meant to comfort and reassure.

True! Ovid was a fan of postwar peace and prosperity, I think, and saw the transition from Republic to Empire as part of that. I can’t remember exactly which poems it comes up in, but more than once I remember him taking the piss out of Golden Age Nostalgia myths. You can lament the demise of the days when Men Were Men and fought one another in glorious battles and never gave into crass materialism all you want, says Ovid. But he’ll be over here with his pen, preferring an age when he’s able to comfortably read his books and write poetry. (Moreover, Ovid subliminally suggests, that Golden Age never really existed.)

So yeah, Ovid actually agrees that Augustus establishing peace and societal stability is a good thing. But there’s other stuff—particularly increased public censorship, some of the morality legislation, and decreased accountability for those in the imperial inner circle—that he’s less than fond of even before his exile.

(There’s also things to be said here about Ovid coming a generation after Vergil, from an Italian tribe who sided with Antony, but that may be a whole other post.)

Reblogging because these comments are so fantastic and smart. :D  And I definitely agree with you about existence implying destruction — in particular, I’m thinking of the whole sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent section, which is about a wider sympathy for others (in that even the Carthaginians have murals of the Trojan War) but is of course famous for implying a fragility and melancholy about the world as well.

I also very much agree with the point about how the Aeneid acknowledges the unease people must have been feeling at the time—and how it was clever of Augustus to allow something which did so while ultimately coming down on his side.  I’m not at all a fan of Augustus (as much as it’s definitely not as simple as the Empire being ‘worse’ than the Republic—I think at least part of why that transition is still so fascinating is because it asks you to weigh up prosperity and security vs liberty, or what passed for it) but damn, he was a master of narrative and perception.

I know the Ovid reference you mean!  It’s somewhere in the Ars Amatoria…..I dug out my copy and this is what I found (this is the Oxford World’s Classics translation by A.D. Melville, who really makes Ovid sound like an 18th-century libertine, but whose version is the one which most feels like Ovid to me, in its exuberance and wry sophistication):

Women of old ne’er groomed themselves, it’s true,

but in those days the men were ungroomed too.

Andromache wore woollens all her life;

small wonder in a hard-bit soldier’s wife.

Would Ajax’s wife come near him smartly dressed,

with seven ox-hides covering his chest?

Once life was rude and plain, now golden-paved

Rome holds the treasures of a world enslaved.

The old and modern Capitols, compare;

Built for two different Jupiters, you’d swear.

The Senate-house, fit home of high debate,

Was wattle-built when Tatius led the state.

And ploughmen’s oxen grazed on Palatine

Where glitter now the palace and the shrine.

The good old days, indeed!  I am, thanks be,

This age’s child; it’s just the age for me,

Not because pliant gold from earth is wrought,

Not because pearls from distant coasts are brought,

Not that from hills their marble hearts we hew,

While piles encroach across the ocean’s blue;

It’s that we’ve learnt refinement, and our days

Inherit not our grandsires’ boorish ways.

Of course, being Ovid, you could just as well take it as a dig at Augustus’s attempts to get back to simple homespun Republican values (not least as he follows it up by talking about the rape of the Sabines), but I agree that he likes the sophistication and elegance of the Imperial world.

I’d definitely be interested in hearing about how Ovid comes from the generation after Vergil, and a tribe which sided with Antony!  Ovid’s relationship to Vergil is really fascinating, and I don’t know anything about the Paelignians apart from their association with witchcraft. (though that in itself is intriguing considering Ovid’s fascination with Circe and Medea, and the lines in……I think it’s the Amores? about how poets can draw down the moon and turn rivers to blood-red.)

Source: camelionpoet