Rome or the countryside? – A letter from the World of late Antiquity

LIVING THE BUSY city life or moving to the quiet life on the countryside? That’s the question.  Even during the late Antiquity people pondered over this. Let’s take a look on a letter from the well-known Jerome (347-420) who lived in Rome while busy spreading Christianity through teaching and writings on Christian morality. He also liked to befriend Roman ladies from the Aristocracy who had promised to remain virgins for the rest of their lives. He eventuelly became a Saint and is regared as a Father of the Church.

I. Context

This letter is adressed to Marcella (325-410), a Christian widow. As wikipedia comments on her life: “After her husband’s early death, Marcella decided to devote the rest of her life to charity, prayer, and mortification of the flesh and was convinced that God was directing her to a life of poverty and service. She left behind her fashionable dresses for a coarse brown garment and abandoned her usual extravagant hair styling and makeup. Along with other women, Marcella formed a community known as the brown dress society, spending their time praying, singing, reading the Bible, and serving the needy. Her palatial home was now a refuge for weary pilgrims and for the poor.” I will not quote the entire letter, but simply point out a few sentences. 

From: Jerome

To: Marcella

Date: Rome, 385 A.D.

II. The Letter

“Wherefore, seeing that we have journeyed for much of our life through a troubled sea, and that our vessel has been in turn shaken by raging blasts and shattered upon treacherous reefs, let us, as soon as may be, make for the haven of rural quietude. There such country dainties as milk and household bread, and greens watered by our own hands, will supply us with coarse but harmless fare. So living, sleep will not call us away from prayer, nor satiety from reading. In summer the shade of a tree will afford us privacy. In autumn the quality of the air and the leaves strewn under foot will invite us to stop and rest. In springtime the fields will be bright with flowers, and our psalms will sound the sweeter for the twittering of the birds. When winter comes with its frost and snow, I shall not have to buy fuel, and, whether I sleep or keep vigil, shall be warmer than in town. At least, so far as I know, I shall keep off the cold at less expense. Let Rome keep to itself its noise and bustle, let the cruel shows of the arena go on, let the crowd rave at the circus, let the playgoers revel in the theatres and— for I must not altogether pass over our Christian friends— let the House of Ladies hold its daily sittings.”

Sources

Butler, Alban. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. 12 vols. Ed. David Hugh Farmer and Paul Burns. New full ed., Tunbridge Wells, UK: Burns & Oates and Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1995–2000.

Select Letters of St. Jerome. Jerome, Saint. F.A. Wright. William Heinemann Ltd.; Harvard University Press. London; Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1933.

Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.)

wikipedia.org (various entries)

Jerome making notes.

Ode 1:37 on the Death of Cleopatra – A poem by Horace

A. CONTEXT

On the Life and Name of Cleopatra 

Cleopatra VII Philopator (Greek: Κλεοπάτρα Φιλοπάτωρ; 69-30 BC), known to history simply as Cleopatra, was the last active ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, briefly survived as pharaoh by her son Caesarion. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the recently established Roman Empire. Her title in Greek philopátōr means the one who loves the father. On the etymology of her given name wikipedia informs Cleopatra is derived from the Greek name Κλεοπάτρα (Kleopatra) which meant “she who comes from glorious father” or “glory of the father” in the feminine form, derived from κλέος (kleos) “glory” combined with πατήρ (pater) “father” (the masculine form would be written either as Kleopatros (Κλεόπατρος), or Patroklos (Πάτροκλος). She was a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty who ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Unlike her Ptolemaic predecessors who spoke Greek only; Cleopatra also learned the Egyptian language. She married her biological brother which was custom but didn’t produce any offspring until she met Julius Caesar.

B. THE POEM

Horace on Cleopatra and his Ode

Horace or Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC. –  8 BC), was on of the most famous Roman poets. He achieved great fame through his Odes [Carmina] but wrote also in Hexameter. He’s considered to be the first person who wrote an autobiography since he talks so much about himself through his poetry. According to English wikipedia: “Horace left Rome, possibly after his father’s death, and continued his formal education in Athens,[…] The Academy was now dominated by Epicureans and Stoics, whose theories and practises made a deep impression on the young man from Venusia.” The Odes were developed as a conscious imitation of the short lyric poetry of Greek originals – Pindar, Sappho and Alcaeus are some of Horace’s models.

The poem is a praise and celebration over the defeat of Cleopatra who comitted suicide and Egypt was then taken over by the Roman Empire. The news of her death likely reached Horace in Rome in the Autumn 30 BC. There are many interpretations of this poem. I quote John Cornington’s interpretation of Ode 1:37, published for the first time in 1882:

Now drink we deep, now featly tread
A measure; now before each shrine
With Salian feasts the table spread;
The time invites us, comrades mine.

‘Twas shame to broach, before today,
The Caecuban, while Egypt‘s dame
Threaten’d our power in dust to lay
And wrap the Capitol in flame,

Girt with her foul emasculate throng,
By Fortune’s sweet new wine befool’d,
In hope’s ungovern’d weakness strong
To hope for all; but soon she cool’d,

To see one ship from burning ‘scape;
Great Caesar taught her dizzy brain,
Made mad by Mareotic grape,
To feel the sobering truth of pain,

And gave her chase from Italy,
As after doves fierce falcons speed,
As hunters ‘neath Haemonia’s sky
Chase the tired hare, so might he lead

The fiend enchain’d; she sought to die
More nobly, nor with woman’s dread
Quail’d at the steel, nor timorously
In her fleet ships to covert fled.

Amid her ruin’d halls she stood
Unblench’d, and fearless to the end
Grasp’d the fell snakes, that all her blood
Might with the cold black venom blend,

Death’s purpose flushing in her face;
Nor to our ships the glory gave,
That she, no vulgar dame, should grace
A triumph, crownless, and a slave.

Sources

Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. John Conington. trans. London. George Bell and Sons. 1882.

For the Latin version of Horace’s ode; published by wellesley.edu, please visit this link.

wikipedia.org [various entries].

Cleopatra portrayed worshipping with her son Caesarion, carvings on the Dendera temple.

Review : ‘A History of Scotland’ by Neil Oliver (2009)

IN THIS review I recommend Neil Oliver’s book A History of Scotland (2009) by Neil Oliver. Many of you readers may be familiar with Oliver since he’s hosted numerous BBC shows related to Scotland, Scottish history and landscape! Just open your YouTube and type a search! I’ve been to Edinburgh once and Aberdeen. Most of my travels in Scotland has been related to the Orkney Islands. Oliver touches briefly upon the history and nature of these islands.

THE Book consists of 14 chapters staring from the very beginning. He puts much effort to describe the natural environments of Scotland. Anyone interested in natural history would appreciate this.  Then, proceeding into the earliest history, the settlers, wanderers and then the Roman impact. He continues to write about the entire history of Scotland through the ages. And he is committed into telling it.

THE langauge is simple and makes it a smooth reading from start to finish! It’s not academic reading but still manage to produce sources to make it a credible reading. I appreciate that very much since I like details.  Next time I plan a trip to Scotland I will read this book once again.

Review: ‘Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde’ by Franny Moyle

WHILE WE continue to lament the downfall of Oscar Wilde it is easy to forget there were other victims in this Victorian tragedy. Wilde was in fact a married man with two children when he was sent to prison in Reading. As the scandal became fact his wife Constance Lloyd Wilde quickly got herself and their two sons out of England. She was equally exiled and she did change her family name back to Holland. As wife she remained loyal and never applied for a divorce. She even visited him occasionally while he was in prison. She also came and delivered the news his mother had passed away.

OSCAR WILDE was one of my favourite writers in my teenage years and later I got know most of his life thanks to Richard Ellman’s biography. His wife was less famous so it was really refreshing reading this biography on Mrs. Wilde by Franny Moyle. In this “review” I will slightly refer to other books and papers. As I took notice while reading about Oscar Wilde’s life over the years one do get the sense he wasn’t always a very nice husband. From one interview with his adventurous love Lord Alfred Douglas’, or Bosie the ageing lord spoke frankly about Wilde’s relation with Constance Wilde and remarked that he often saw him impatience with her. This was at least a reported fact in Ellman’s biography and repeated by Moyle as well. Despite this Lord Douglas choose not to honour lady Wilde and blamed Wilde’s downfall on her.

img_0766
Constance Lloyd prior her engagement to Oscar Wilde.

Constance Wilde (2 January 1859 – 7 April 1898), born Constance Mary Lloyd she did not have a happy childhood since her mother abused her verbally and physically. Her father died early and the negative experiences with her mother made her shy and a bit withdrawn. The Wildes and the Lloyds knew each other since the irish years so when Constance met Oscar they weren’t strangers. Moyle uses a lot of previous unpublished letters as she draws the story of Mrs Wilde. It’s a well-researched biography.

Despite her brother Otho’s warnings (he had heard “something” about Oscar) she got married to him in May 1884 and idolized him from the start. It seem to have been a love-match and they seemed happy together. They quickly started a family and she bore him two sons. Wilde seem to have been sexually uninterested in her after the birth of their second son. He often complained she had gained weight and the boy-girlish persona she possessed before the marriage was all gone.

Life with Oscar Wilde

WE don’t know when Constance found out her husband was gay but he lived a double-life with her and the family. Most of his time was spent at various hotels in the city and he would sometimes live with her and the children at Tite Street, Chelsea although this was not very common. SHE seemed to have accepted her husband’s busy lifestyle leavening her to take care of their home and children. Despite being an absent father she shared his interests in literature and fashion. Both were involved in the Victorian Dress Reform Movement.

img_0767
Constance looking at Oscar.

She must have known about his sexuality by 1895 when Wilde was tried and imprisoned for “gross indecency”, or homosexual acts. After Wilde’s imprisonment, Constance changed her and her sons’ last name to Holland to dissociate themselves from Wilde’s scandal. According to Ellman’s biography on Oscar Wilde this happened after Constance was denied to stay at a hotel because of the Wilde family name. The couple never divorced and though Constance visited Oscar in prison so she could tell him the news of his mother’s death, she also forced him to give up his parental rights and later, after he had been released from prison, refused to send him any money unless he no longer associated with Douglas.

The Final years and illnesses of Constance Wilde

A mysterious ill health—headaches, joint pains, weakness and trembling in the limbs, partial facial paralysis and exhaustion continued to plague her in the exile. According to The Guardian, “speculative theories [about her death] have ranged from spinal damage following a fall down stairs to syphilis caught from her husband.” However, again according to The Guardian, Merlin Holland, grandson of Oscar Wilde, “unearthed medical evidence within private family letters, which has enabled a doctor to determine the likely cause of Constance’s demise. The letters reveal symptoms nowadays associated with multiple sclerosis but apparently wrongly diagnosed by her two doctors”.

mrswildeConstance sought help from two doctors. One of them was a “nerve doctor” from Heidelberg, Germany who resorted to dubious remedies. The second doctor was a high-society surgeon named Luigi Maria Bossi and he conducted two operations (for uterine fibroid) in 1895 and 1898, the latter of which ultimately led to her death. According to The Lancet, “the surgery Bossi performed in December 1895 was probably an anterior vaginal wall repair to correct urinary difficulties from a presumed bladder prolapse. In retrospect, the actual problem was probably neurogenic and not structural in origin.”(Alberge 2015) Bossi was also a professor of gynaecology at Genoa University and a fellow of the British Gynecological Society. Bossi fell out with his colleagues for championing surgery to fix now-discredited “pelvic madness.”

During the second surgery in April 1898 Bossi probably “did not attempt a hysterectomy but merely excised the tumour in a myomectomy” (Robins 1995). However, shortly after the surgery Constance developed uncontrollable vomiting, which led to dehydration and death. The immediate cause of death was likely severe paralytic ileus, which developed either as a result of the surgery itself or of intra-abdominal sepsis (blood poisoning). “Ultimately, both Bossi and the hapless Constance met their ends tragically: he by the bullet of an assassin and she by the knife of an irresponsible surgeon.” (Robins 1995). Bossi was killed by a jealous husband of one of his patients.

Resources

Dalya Alberge (1 January 2015).”Letters unravel mystery of the death of Oscar Wilde’s wife”.

Robins, Ashley; Holland, Merlin (3 January 2015). “The enigmatic illness and death of Constance, wife of Oscar Wilde“. The Lancet.