I’m reading Robert O’Connell’s excellent and thoroughly engrossing .The Ghosts of Cannae, a review of the famous battle and the long shadow it casts in miliary history. Naturally, one of his primary sources is Livy–and although I’m not a fan of Livy’s rhetoric, I appreciate the insightful comparison to “a Hollywood mogul, capuring the sweep of Roman history with a notably cinematic flair.” And yes, an ancient historian would probably take that as a compliment.
Whether you’re grooming a postage stamp-sized yard in suburban Chicago or the vast lawns surrounding the Palace of Versailles, a day spent in the garden is the closest man can get to paradise. Or, at least, spending a day outside watching your wife dig in the flowerbeds and weed her tomatoes is paradise; I’m sure as heck not getting humus under my nails (that last crack will probably cost me a fresh salad this weekend–Quam honestus patior!).
Anyway, lying in a hammock and sipping my lemonade, I recalled a bit of Latin from a long-ago seminar: Pingues hortos quae cura colendi ornaret. But where was it from–I hate falling back on Google for things I know are in my own memory–so a little puzzling was in order; it’s clearly part of a hexameter, and Virgil’s Georgics seems obvious. But would you have thought to look in Book IV–the one on beekeeping?
Forsitan et, pingues hortos quae cura colendi
ornaret, canerem, biferique rosaria Paesti,
quoque modo potis gauderent intiba rivis
et virides apio ripae, tortusque per herbam
cresceret in ventrem cucumis; nec sera comantem
narcissum aut flexi tacuissem vimen acanthi
pallentesque hederas et amantes litora myrtos. (IV.118-124)
Virgil paints a beautiful picture of “twice-flowering Paestum"–a rural town that lay near the modern Amalfi coast of Salerno south of Naples. He starts at the river, where the endives (intiba) glory in the river they drink from. Students should note how Virgil joins potis–technically a passive participle–with the noun rivis when the subject intiba is the one doing the drinking; this economy of words in describing a verbal action is a common trick of his. Next we move out to the ripae green with parsley (apium), and then further away the bulging (cresceret in ventrem) cucumbers twisted through the brush.
Sera in line 122 is interesting; a neuter plural accusative after comantem, probably best translated in English by an adverb ("late-flowering"). Virgil doesn’t just list a few flowers in these final lines, he carefully places epithets and focuses on details: It’s not the Acanthus which gets the focus, it’s the flower’s supple stem (flexi is a transferred epithet); the pale color of the ivy gets the emphatic first position in the last line, a structure prepeated at the end of the line with “shore-loving myrtles".
This passage–like so much of the Georgics–is a true joy for an attentive reader. The whole poem is a seamless weave of such fine threads, a work that really rewards extended reading and rumination. I bet I haven’t read that passage in over ten years, and yet that scrap about pingues hortos still haunted me and led me to a forgotten treasure. VIrgil truly was a brilliant writer.
I should know better than to get into arguments at parties–a few beers in and everyone’s an expert. Basically–like a typical talk-radio hosts–I let the situation get the better of me and started making indefensible claims about the Roman poet Virgil; bear with me there’s a point in all this.
Basically the conversation was about the value of the arts in general: Are they strictly for entertainment, or is there some larger value in, say, reading Dickens or understanding opera. Since Latin literature is my own personal interest, I argued that art is of course entertaining–if nobody liked Silius Italicus, I doubt copies of the Punica would have survived, so I guess director Michael Bay has a chance. But art also provides a detailed window into a different culture, and there is some practical value in comparing that culture with our own. For one thing, it will often expose the unspoken assumptions and values of our own culture; if someone wants to, say, compare reality TV with Roman gladiator shows, they really need to do better than make an offhand reference to the Coliseum and rant about the slippery slope (Quamquam cornum meum canam, here’s an old piece on Jon&Kate that illustrates a better approach).
Anyway, though I stand by that point, the quality of that argument deteriorated thru the evening thanks to the continued ingestion of alcohol. Sadly, it reached a level where we were discussing the sexual orientation of the Roman poet Virgil (as a stand-in for all ancient literary figures–it’s too embarassing to recount even in a blog post). The correct answer to the question is, we simply can’t tell. Eclogue 2 is a tanatlizing clue–although as the earliest of Virgil’s bona-fide works it is a somewhat slavish imitation of the Greek Theocritus, so who knows how much of it reflects the poet’s real sentiments. But even the modern term “gay"–and I don’t mean just homosexuality, but all the attendant cultural implications–hardly has an equivalent in ancient Rome. The best my sober self can say is that it is quite possible that Virgil was homosexual–perhaps even more likely than for other Roman figures of the same era, but even so Virgil certainluy didn’t display the “gay sensibility” of 19th- and 20th- century writers like Oscar Wilde, James Merrill, or John Ashbury.
I guess what ultimately got me riled up was the way many people use the term “gay"–unfairly in my opinion–to ghettoize artistic work that doesn’t directly engage the heterosexual identity (for the modern culture, that means movies with car chases and buxom blondes). Musical theatre is the most common example; I personally enjoy musicals and appreciate their 20th-century development into a true American art form. But I suspect there is a large contingent of young males (that covereted 18-34 demo) who would instantly dismiss a masterpiece like “Carousel” as gay–even if they personally have no issue with homosexuality. I guess I take the use of the word “gay"–at least in this context–as a more general pejorative, somewhat like the anti-Romani connotation in the word “gyp". It’s a trap I shouldn’t have fallen into, and to anyone there who happens to stuble across this blog, I apologize.
Anyway, that’s my story from an embarassing weekend…so how did you spend your Saturday night?
I was lucky enough to visit Pompeii eight years ago–absolutely fantastic, and I only saw a few strays roaming the streets (the cats on the Palatine were worse, but I suppose much less dangerous). It’s nice to know someone is doing something positive to change that.
OK, so [C]Ave canem is a good cause with a bad Latin name. Please explain:
Giacomo Bottinelli, the coordinator of the project, acknowledged that the Latin was not correct. “It should be Ave Canis” — for Hail Dog — “but we didn’t want to get into anything too complicated,” said Mr. Bottinelli, who studied classical philology in college.
I’ve been keeping this quote from Juvenal in my back pocket. But now that professional idiot Glenn Beck has published a novel (yes, really–please don’t take that link as an endorsement):
Stulta est clementia, cum tot ubique
vatibus occurras, periturae parcere chartae. (I.17-18)
Periturae is the key word…Beck’s scribbles will no doubt be pulp within a year, and his name an answer to an obscure trivia question in decades to come (anybody remember Wally George?)
I spent last week driving with the family thru the American south, and at our stop in Monticello I learned a bit about Latin horticultural terms.
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