My Own Private Empire

This is an essay on teaching. On the Greek and Roman classics. On empire. 


I have adapted it from a lecture I delivered roughly a decade ago.


In it, I offer three beginnings, three endings. And because my favorite writers loved this pattern, I plan to end up where I began. Ring composition, it’s called: A, B, C, C, B, A. Conforming to the following outline:


Beginning A(1): Jim encounters the ancient world.
Beginning B(1): Petrarch and other humanists rediscover the ancients.
Beginning C(1): Virgil begins the Aeneid.

Ending C(2): Virgil ends the Aeneid.
Ending B(2): Modern-day Petrarchs continue to be influenced by the Greek and Latin classics.
Ending A(2): Jim says goodbye to the classroom, but not to the ancient world.


A(1): Thirty-five years ago, I was sitting in a college auditorium. I was there to attend my literature and composition class. There was this problem, though: my professor, instead of holding forth on topic sentences and comma splices, was playing a lyre and warbling in a very foreign language. It was Greek, it was poetry, and it was weird. When her teaching assistants joined in, and their chorus of voices filled the lecture hall, I distinctly remember thinking: these classics people are completely insane.


My Greek history professor was also unhinged. In our first class, he seemed serious when he proposed that the difference between Greek and non-Greek in the ancient world was that Greeks were wine-drinkers, while “barbarians” were beer-drinkers. Later, to illustrate why the Macedonian phalanx formation was so fearsome, he brought in a small tree or branch from his yard, stripped of its leaves and sharpened to a point, with which he rather too gleefully menaced the front row of students, all classics majors no doubt, all of them a bit unnerved by the maniacal grin on his face.


These professorial crackpots eventually lured me into classics. But it wasn’t only their inspired and inspirational teaching that made me stick with it. It was, I confess, philology.


In Greek, a philólogos is “someone who loves words.” I discovered that all these wacky people in classics, whether they were Hellenists or Latinists, history or lit people, humanists or postmodernists – they were all people who loved words and texts.


So, I became a classical philologist. I was taught to treat a word in a Greek or Latin text like an opening into another world, a doorway into another time and place. For me, a boy from a tiny town in south Georgia, it was all a revelation. Though my Latin and Greek books were shiny new, I felt as though I had in my hands crumbling manuscripts, papyrus fragments pulled from the sands of Egypt. I never got over – I have never gotten over the sense of wonder that a poet of the 8th century B.C.E., using a newly developed alphabet to write down the words mēnin aeide thea, “Sing, goddess, of the wrath,” could reach out and find me, twenty-seven centuries later, on a wintry afternoon in New Jersey.


B(1): Et illa quidem aetate nihil intelligere poteram, sola me verborum dulcedo quaedam et sonoritas detinebat, “At that age, I wasn’t able to understand anything; but the mere sweetness and sonority of the words captivated me.” That’s the Italian poet and humanist Petrarch, describing his boyhood reading of Cicero and the Latin poets. Petrarch himself tells the story that one day his father, who thought that young Francesco was diligently studying law, discovered his son’s secret cache of Latin poetry and prose. Petrarch senior threw these into the fire. Whereupon Francesco did the only sensible thing that a person can do in a situation like that: he burst into tears. His father then snatched from the flames a single copy of Virgil’s poetry and one work by Cicero.


This, maybe, was the moment when Petrarch’s vocation was revealed to him. But classical scholarship does not begin with Petrarch in the 14th century, though Petrarch is generally credited with initiating its revival in modern times. In fact, classical scholarship is as old or almost as old as the Greek and Latin “classics” themselves. Already in the 3rd century B.C.E., in that famous center of learning, Alexandria, scholar-poets were collecting tens and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of scrolls, then identifying, classifying, cataloguing, and editing them. They compiled glossaries and dictionaries, treatises and catalogues, commentaries and critical editions. Always the starting point for Zenodotus, Callimachus, Aristarchus and the rest of the Alexandrian scholars was the words themselves: what did Sophocles write in his play Oedipus the King, and what do those words mean?


Fifteen centuries later, young, teary-eyed Francesco Petrarca was clutching to his chest two slightly singed copies of Virgil and Cicero. The “sweetness and sonority of the words” had made a deep impression upon him. He devoted much of his life to traveling through France, Flanders, and Italy, recovering lost Latin texts. He then set about reviving the work of the scholar poets of ancient Alexandria: he copied, collated, corrected, and annotated the manuscripts that he had located; not only that, but he also composed his own poetry, including impeccable Virgilian hexameters and Latin prose worthy of Cicero. For Petrarch, for Erasmus, for so many of the Renaissance scholars, the rediscovered classics were, to use that word again, a revelation. And for some of them, including Petrarch, they were more even that that. A few years before he died, Petrarch wrote these words: “Human beings are destructive, false, faithless, deceitful, savage, and bloodthirsty animals, unless they learn” – note that word, “learn” – “unless they learn to clothe themselves in God’s special gift of humanitas and to shed their feritas.” By humanitas, Petrarch means humanity, of course, but in the sense of humaneness, in the sense of respect and caring for others. By feritas, he means our animal nature, our brutality and savagery.


For you and me, looking back at Petrarch and the Renaissance past two world wars, genocide, torture, slavery, inquisition – in short, looking back at Petrarch with full knowledge of all that came later, it may seem hopelessly naïve to believe that diligent study of a carefully edited manuscript of Cicero or Virgil – that is, study of mere words and texts, mere philology – could change anything for the better, could somehow make a person good. Still, there stood Petrarch, clutching his copies of Virgil and Cicero, saved from the fire by his remorseful father.


C(1): One day in 29 B.C.E., a man a dozen years younger than I am now sits staring at every writer’s nightmare: a blank page. A poet, he has already established a reputation as Rome’s answer to Greek virtuosity and achievement in literature. His earlier works were well received: first, a collection of sophisticated pastoral poems in the manner of the erudite Alexandrian poets; next, an ambitious didactic poem in the tradition of the early Greek poet Hesiod.


But there is a limit to ambition. And on this day, our poet may have reached that limit.


For, having demonstrated his mastery of pastoral and didactic, our poet is attempting the most prestigious of poetic genres: epic. He wants to compose a Latin epic in the style of the two great Greek epics, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. This Roman epic will reach back into the mythical past to tell of the origins of Rome, city and empire. Legend had it that the Romans were descendants of the losing side in the Trojan War. Supposedly, the survivors from Troy sailed west from Asia Minor and after adventure, suffering, and more warfare, established themselves in their new home of Italy. After many generations, from this band of exiled Trojans came Romulus, the first king of Rome.


So, a poem about the distant past. A poem about Rome’s origins. And if that were all, the blank page might not seem so daunting.


But that isn’t all. Because as one of Faulkner’s characters says, so it was for the Romans: the past is never dead; it’s not even past. No, our poet’s aim is higher than that. He hopes to use Rome’s past to tell the story of its troubled present, and like some prophet, to offer glimpses of a future that might be either glorious or terrifying.


Past, present, future – all three in one poem. Oh, and as a bonus, our poet aims to encompass within 12 books of Latin hexameters the entire Iliad and the entire Odyssey, each poem 24 books or chapters in length, each poem a kind of Bible in the ancient Mediterranean. So, every major character of the Greek poems will have his or her analogue in the Latin poem; major plot developments in the Greek poems will be appropriated and transformed for the new epic; and if in some sense the Iliad and Odyssey say “This is what it means to be Greek,” the new Latin epic will respond, “And this is what it means to be Roman.”


All our poet needs is a beginning, a word or two. Realize that the opening phrases of Greek and Latin poems are especially significant because they served effectively as titles in antiquity. Remember, too, that Homer’s Iliad established the convention that the first word or phrase of an epic poem announces a main idea of the work: “Anger, goddess, sing of the anger of Achilles son of Peleus.”


How to begin? Arma. Its basic meaning is “arms,” that is, weapons and armor, but by a process of association that we call metonymy, it can also mean “warfare.” What next? Virum, that is, “man,” or depending on the context, “husband” or “hero.” Then this: -que, which means “and,” but is always attached to the second word in the pair it coordinates. Finally, cano, “I sing.” Together, arma virumque cano, a sonorous phrase of r’s and m’s, meaning “Of arms and a man I sing,” or in the translation of Robert Fitzgerald, “I sing of warfare and a man at war.”


It works. Arma can refer to the second half of the new poem, where the poet will describe the war that the Trojans must fight against the Italians. Virum can then refer to the first six books, in which the hero of the poem is introduced and successfully leads his people from ruined Troy to Italy. It’s a neat beginning, one that anticipates the structure of the poem and its subject matter.


But wait, there’s more. The Latin word virum is an exact translation of the first word in Homer’s Odyssey, the Greek word andra. By the same token, arma, understood as “warfare,” can represent Homer’s Iliad, a poem about war. Therefore, arma virumque cano has to be understood, at some level, as meaning not merely “I sing of warfare and a man at war” but “I sing of iliadic warfare and an odyssean hero.” These opening words situate the new work within a genre or type of poetry, which is mythological epic, declare what its chief models are to be, the Iliad and Odyssey, and invite us to read intertextually, that is, to read the new poem as being in dialogue with its Greek predecessors. Very clever.


But wait, there’s more. Because of a peculiarity of the Latin language, the phrase arma virum (we have to ignore the –que for a moment) can also mean “the arms of heroes.” In this guise, the Latin words arma virum are an approximate translation of the Greek phrase klea andrôn, which means “the illustrious deeds of heroes.” It seems likely that an earlier epic poet, a Roman poet named Ennius, coined this Latin phrase to translate the Greek. So, with this beginning, our poet nods his head not only to Homer, greatest of the Greek epic poets, but also to Ennius, greatest of the Roman epic poets up until this time. In effect, he’s saying that with this poem, I join the ranks of the great epic poets.


But wait, there’s more. There’s more, that is, if you are willing to go through the doorway with me, the one that leads into another time and place. There’s more if after centuries upon centuries of Virgilian scholarship – for Virgil, after all, is the name of our poet – I can presume to say that we philologists have missed something that is both altogether obvious and profound.


Let me be as clear as I can: it is my view that the phrase arma virumque is not just an announcement of this new poem’s structure (two halves), its subject matter (heroism in war), its genre (epic), and its chief literary models (the Greek Homer and the Roman Ennius). Arma virumque is also an image. Not some fuzzy image of the melee of battle or victory and defeat in war. It is a concrete image of cold, hard, flashing, immortal bronze contrasted with warm, yielding, mortal flesh. It is the image of a solitary warrior, clad in his bronze armor and clutching his weapons. Moreover, this image, invested with meaning over the course of the poem, becomes its dominant symbol and its chief locus of ambiguity. Indeed, there is a sense in which the poem is an exploration of the resonances of this single complex phrase, to adapt the language of critics J. Hillis Miller and William Empson.


What sort of resonances, you may be thinking. You recall Petrarch’s comment on humanitas. He wrote, “Human beings are destructive, false, faithless, deceitful, savage, and bloodthirsty animals, unless they learn to clothe themselves in God’s special gift of humanity and shed their brutality.” The Aeneid – for that, of course, is the name of our poem – the Aeneid, through this multivalent image of a man encased in armor, offers its own, somewhat different version of Petrarch’s broad statement about the human condition.


C(2): In Book 6 of the Iliad, up on the walls of Troy, a weeping Andromache pleads with her husband Hector to seek safety within the walls. He declines. He then reaches out to his infant son, but the child screams out at “the sight of his own father, / terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest, / the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror,” as Robert Fagles puts it. The child’s parents laugh, and Hector removes his helmet. Kissing his son, Hector prays that the child grow up to emulate his father, that he return from battle one day “bearing the bloody gear / of the mortal enemy he has killed in war – / a joy to his mother’s heart.”


Later in the poem, you may remember, Hector does indeed seize the bloody gear of his mortal enemy. The Greek warrior Patroclus wears his friend Achilles’ divine armor into battle and is killed by Hector, with Apollo’s aid. Hector takes and puts on Achilles’ armor, but there will be no joy in that for Hector’s wife Andromache. Instead, just as Hector’s helmet frightened his son Astyanax, Achilles and his new armor, a gift from his mother, unnerve Hector, who turns and runs. After Achilles chases him, kills him, and strips him, each of the other Greeks stabs Hector, jesting that he is now “softer” to handle.


In these two scenes, the family upon the walls of Troy and Hector on the battlefield, we have a study in contrasts: city and battlefield, laughter and tears, a menacing helmet and a beloved face, unyielding bronze and soft flesh. These are scenes of irony and pathos, in which armor has an almost talismanic power to mark the boundary between the public sphere of war and the private sphere of home and family. In the first scene, the armor-clad Hector is frighteningly out of place among his family; in the second, the unarmed Hector is ridiculously out of place among his enemies.


So clearly does armor set off public from private, that the Hector of the one sphere is hardly recognizable in the other. It’s as if there are two Hectors in the Iliad: one, who boasts to Patroclus that “the vultures shall eat you,” the warrior who is “filled with Ares, the god of war” when he dons Achilles’ armor, who is described by his own wife as no gentle man in battle; the other, a kindly man whom Helen describes in her eulogy of him as gentle of temper and speech.


Divine armor possesses and transforms Hector, and it transforms his nemesis Achilles, too. When Achilles’ mother Thetis arrives in the Greek camp with his new gear forged by the blacksmith god Hephaestus, only Achilles has the courage to look. His eyes burn as he gazes upon the beautiful gifts, and his rage increases. His mother tells him, “[A]rm for battle quickly, clothe yourself in fighting power!” (19.36). He does so and, like Hector, he is filled with battle wrath and wrapped in prowess. In effect, Achilles becomes inhuman. He is godlike, like a force of nature, and like a killing machine: a warrior “built of solid bronze,” as Homer’s Aeneas describes him, with a heart of iron in his chest, a man who neither eats, nor drinks, nor pities, nor accepts any wound.


The armor-clad Achilles is one of the more terrifying characters in Western literature: he is a force of pure, relentless, self-justifying violence. At the very end of the poem, though, no longer armed, no longer wrathful, returned again to the private sphere, Achilles succeeds in clothing himself once again in humanitas. When King Priam of Troy unexpectedly arrives to offer ransom for the return of his son’s corpse, Achilles feels pity for Hector’s father, thinking of his own father back in Greece. He sends Priam back to Troy with Hector’s corpse.


Now contrast the end of the Aeneid with the end of the Iliad. Here it is, in the translation of Robert Fitzgerald. The scene opens with Turnus, playing the role of Hector here, lying wounded on the ground and having just pleaded with Aeneas for mercy (12.938-52):


Fierce under arms, Aeneas
Looked to and fro, and towered, and stayed his hand
Upon the sword-hilt. Moment by moment now
What Turnus said began to bring him round
From indecision. Then to his glance appeared
The accurst swordbelt surmounting Turnus’ shoulder,
Shining with its familiar studs – the strap
Young Pallas wore when Turnus wounded him
And left him dead upon the field; now Turnus
Bore that enemy token on his shoulder –
Enemy still. For when the sight came home to him,
Aeneas raged at the relic of his anguish
Worn by this man as trophy. Blazing up
And terrible in his anger, he called out:

“You in your plunder, torn from one of mine,
Shall I be robbed of you? This wound will come
From Pallas: Pallas makes this offering
And from your criminal blood exacts his due.”

He sank his blade in fury in Turnus’ chest.
Then all the body slackened in death’s chill,
And with a groan for that indignity
His spirit fled into the gloom below.


The differences are stark and disturbing. Aeneas, clad in his own divine armor, and like Hector and Achilles transformed by that armor – no, more than transformed . . . twisted and distorted almost beyond recognition by that armor, in ways that I cannot describe here . . . Aeneas slays his defenseless enemy. He kills the suppliant Turnus to avenge the death of Pallas, his young protégé. And there the poem ends. There is no more. Aeneas does not reclaim Pallas’s belt, as Achilles reclaimed his own armor from Hector’s corpse. There is no dragging of the corpse. There is no journey by Turnus’s father Daunus to the Trojan camp, no meeting of Daunus and Aeneas, no scene in which Aeneas expresses pity for Daunus and hands over the body. Finally, there is no return by the poem from the domain of arms, arma, to the domain of the private man, vir. Instead, we are left with the image of two warriors, one standing acer in armis, “fierce under arms,” the other lying dead.


What does it mean? Let me suggest to you that the difference between Achilles and Aeneas, between the Greek Iliad and the Roman Aeneid, is revealed by the two heroes’ famous shields. On Achilles’ shield, depictions of two cities, one a city at war, the other a city in time of peace. In the Greek poem, then, there is balance, there is acknowledgement of the ceaseless ebb and flow of human life, of the need somehow to have both public and private lives. In contrast, on Aeneas’s shield are depictions of all his future Roman descendants and all the wars that they will fight, one after another. On Aeneas’s shield, in other words, there is the future and the history of empire.


Empire. The Aeneid ends where it does because in empire, there can be no alternation, no return from war to peace, from the public to the private. In empire, peace is war – pax Romana, the blessings of peace secured by an infinite series of wars. Or, as the Roman historian Tacitus wrote, placing these words in the mouth of an enemy of Rome, “They make a wasteland, and they call it peace.”


In human terms, empire means that Turnus must die, and that the good and pious Aeneas cannot take off his armor or drop his weapons. On the contrary, the good and pious Aeneas must clothe himself in savagery and brutality. More than that even: the vir must become arma, the man must become his armor. He must disappear into it. In empire, then, private must be subsumed by public; the individual must give way to the state.


Arma virumque cano. We didn’t notice before that the words arma . . . –que encircle and confine the word virum.


B(2): It goes almost without saying that war and empire are very much on our minds these days. Which leads me to ask whether there is a place here in the 21st century for two poets of war like Homer and Virgil, and for the rest of their ilk: Sappho, Simonides, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Plato, Plautus, Cicero, Sulpicia, Horace, Tacitus, Juvenal, Apuleius, and the rest. Or is this now the end, the right time to clear the shelves in McCain and make room for something a little less . . . dusty.


When I was planning this talk, I pondered different ways to answer that question.


I considered mentioning to you that classical scholarship today is an extraordinarily dynamic field. Yes, we still rely on the sort of philological work that I attempted to demonstrate to you today. But we have also embraced new approaches to old cultures: gender studies, performance theory, gay/lesbian/bisexual studies, psychoanalysis, anthropology, and feminist theories, to name a few. Some people in classics are even breaking new ground in these areas, as for example in the social construction of sexuality and gender. And as a former instructor at a women’s college, I might have added that many of the most authoritative voices in classics today are women’s voices: philosopher Martha Nussbaum, democracy theorist Danielle Allen, scholar poet Anne Carson, Hellenist Nicole Loraux, Froma Zeitlin, Elaine Fantham, and on and on.


I also considered mentioning that outside the academy, the question appears to be moot. On the day that I delivered this essay as a lecture, at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., for example, one could catch a production of Aristophanes’ comic play The Frogs, starring Nathan Lane, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre on Broadway. Or one could duck into a bookstore and buy a copy of my college classmate Jane Shumate Allison’s steamy first novel The Love-Artist, about the Roman poet Ovid. Or one could walk down to the Met to check on the museum’s progress in building new galleries for Hellenistic and Roman art (since completed and stunning!).


But I decided not to say all that, because in fact, I don’t think I’ve put the question correctly. The question is not whether there is a place for Virgil in the 21st century. The correct question is this: is there a place for history at all? And here is my answer: however much we might like to ignore the past, the one thing we can’t do is unmake the past. Like it or not, the language we speak here today, the rhetoric that I’ve been using, many of the stories we tell, the modes of thought that we employ, the very idea of a college – all of it is a legacy from the past. Maybe somebody here would, if he or she could, urge Petrarch’s father not to save Virgil from the fire, would send Francesco off to do something really useful, like studying law. But it doesn’t matter. Because we can’t unmake the past.


If we would understand ourselves, we must emulate the Roman god Janus. Janus was the god of beginnings and endings, the god invoked at the beginning of prayers, just as Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home, was invoked at the end. You recall that Janus had two faces, looking in opposite directions. Like Janus, we must look not only at where we’re headed, but also at where we’ve been. So here’s my prayer to Janus: give us the wisdom to see that where we end up is partly a consequence of where we began.


A(2): Thirty-five years after I was lured into classics by several oddball professors – one of whom, if you can believe it, became the president of Kenyon College, and another the president first of a research center for the humanities and then of a national foundation supporting liberal arts colleges – thirty-five years later, I’m wrapping up a career as an oddball professor myself. In a sense, I never left that lecture hall at Princeton. I ended up exactly where I began.


And that’s fine by me. For several reasons, above all because I had the pleasure of teaching so many wonderful students, the intellectual descendants of Petrarch, Aristarchus, and Virgil.


Is it painful not to be with them as classes begin? Of course. But there is a positive way to look at it. After all, now I know exactly how Petrarch felt on that fateful day when his dad dropped by for a visit and found him reading Virgil. And so I too will be singeing my fingers as I snatch from the fire of time’s passing the poems and other works that have become the provinces of my own private empire.

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