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.

Inscription on a Roman tomb – A Piece of Poetry

Context: A short inscription in Latin found on a Roman woman’s tombstone located in Aurelia. It briefly tells us her name, age and mentions a beloved husband and a daughter. These short inscriptions (Carmina epigrapha) became quite popular during 300 BCE up until Late Antiquity. Even if short it captures a lot of information on who she was when she lived. 

Themes: death, rememberance of a beloved one now dead.

CLE 00385

Hic sita sum quae frugiferas cum coniuge terras
Has colui semper nostro dilecta marito.
Myrsina mi nom[en fuerat. quinquennia quinque]
Vixi et quem de[derat cursum Fortuna peregi].
Care marite m[ihi et du]lcissima nata ualete
Et memores nostris semper date iusta sepulchris.

I’m buried here, I who grew these
fruitful fields with my husband,
always beloved
by my husband.
Myrsina was my name.
Five times five years
I lived, and my life granted
to me by Destiny I have fulfilled.
You my husband, my dearly beloved,
and my dearest daughter, goodbye
and remember [me] always and give
suitable sacrifaces to my tomb.