The Secret History – Procopius

Procopius was born around 500AD and died sometime after 565AD, a period during which the Roman empire was in serious decline. For many years he worked for the celebrated military commander General Belisarius during which time he wrote the work he became known for in the time of the empire ‘History of the Wars’. This series of eight books is a standard document of the campaigns of Belisarius who seemed to be leading his armies, and even the navy at some point, everywhere. It is clear from the level of detail that Procopius was on the scene for most of the battles he describes even though his official role, at least initially, was as legal advisor to the general. Less well known is his work ‘The Buildings’ which is largely a hagiography of Emperor Justinian (527AD to 565AD) as it describes the major construction works undertaken during his reign and exclaims the greatness of Justinian due to these churches and other civil engineering projects. His third work however is the one that I have read this week and it is very different to the rest, not least because it wasn’t available during his lifetime and indeed was only discovered in the Vatican library centuries after his death and finally published in 1623. So why wasn’t it available in the preceding thousand years, well Procopius gives us the explanation in his foreword.

This book is basically a scandal sheet denigrating Justinian as a genocidal leader interested only in the money he could confiscate or swindle out of everyone else and slaughtering tens of thousands of people on a whim whilst losing vast chunks of what was left of the empire. His wife is portrayed as a scheming whore, free with her body from an outrageously young age, stripping off in public places and letting anyone have their way with her as they wished. His former boss Belisarius and his wife are similarly pilloried by Procopius as is the previous emperor Justin who is described as an idiot and little more than a jackass. It is quite clear why he decided not to publish in his lifetime or indeed whilst anyone mentioned in the book was still alive, the repercussions would have been swift and brutal.

One slightly irritating feature of the book is the constant references back to Procopius’s eight volume history, this is usually where he is giving a scandalous reason for something that he had previously written about but which he had glossed over the causes of in the earlier book. This becomes more annoying if, like me, you don’t own ‘History of the Wars’ so can’t refer back, the notes in this edition simply tell you which of the eight volumes the story was first told, it would have been nice if a short precis was available so that the reader can compare the two accounts but that would have made the book probably over long. All in all I quite enjoyed this book though, it is unusual by being a character assassination of a couple of Roman emperors written at the time of their reigns, the only work I can think of that I have read with a similarly blunt although not as brutal or scandalous assessment of the emperors is ‘The Twelve Caesars’ by Suetonius although all the rulers he wrote about were dead before he started work on that.

As can be seen from the foreword the writing style is fairly chatty, although the subject matter with it’s never ending tales of depravity can get a little wearing at times. The translator of this Folio Society edition is Geoffrey Williamson and it was originally published as a Penguin Classic (L182, first published August 1966). The Folio Society first printed it in 1990 and it has gone through several editions since then.

The Symposium – Plato

Like the situation with Hilaire Belloc’s works in last weeks blog entry I have several books by Plato but have never read them so he was an obvious choice for this week. Regarding the title, apparently a symposium meant something very different in ancient Greece to the way we use the word today. Nowadays a symposium would be “an occasion at which people who have great knowledge of a particular subject meet in order to discuss a matter of interest” but the ancients saw it as a drinking party held after a meal usually with musicians present. However in the case of the one described by Plato in this work the flautist is dismissed before starting to play and each person there is asked to give a short talk on a topic decided by the host, specifically the god of Love. It soon becomes clear just what different social mores the ancient Greeks lived by than we do today. Let’s take an extract from one of the early speeches:-

There can be no doubt of the common nature of Love which goes with the common Aphrodite; it is random in the effects it produces, and it is this love which the baser sort of men feel. It’s marks are, first, that it is directed towards women quite as much as young men; second, that in either case it is physical rather than spiritual; third, that it prefers that its objects should be as unintelligent as possible, because its only aim is the satisfaction of its desires, and it takes no account of the manner in which this is achieved. That is why its effect is purely a matter of chance and quite as often bad as good. In all that it partakes of the corresponding nature of its goddess, who is far younger than her heavenly counterpart, and who owes her birth to the conjunction of male and female. But the heavenly Aphrodite to whom the other Love belongs for one thing has no female strain in her, but springs entirely from the male and for another is older and consequently free from wantonness. Hence those who are inspired by this Love are attracted towards the male sex, and value it as naturally the stronger and more intelligent. Besides even amongst the lovers of their own sex one can distinguish those whose motives are dictated by this second Love, they do not fall in love with mere boys, but wait until they reach the age at which they begin to show some intelligence, that is to say until they are near growing a beard.

Extract from the speech by Pausanias in The Symposium by Plato

Yes the Love discussed by the various participants in this symposium is homosexual and specifically that between men and adolescent boys. I knew that the ancient Greeks were keen on pederasty but had no idea how much it was regarded as superior to relationships between men and women before reading this work. Speaker after speaker continues to praise the theme of ‘The Lover’ (a virile adult male) and ‘His Beloved’ (an adolescent boy or possibly young adult male) and denigrates love between men and women as clearly inferior until we at last reach the last speaker, Socrates. Not that he contradicts the previous speeches, but he does instead look to establish the nature of the God of Love himself and what the nature of love and desire is. It is worth mentioning that those men that take a particularly young boy as their Beloved are not rejected out of hand, but it is not regarded as such a high love as those that wait until the boy is fourteen or fifteen years old.

After Socrates has finished and at the very end of the book, a very drunken Alcibiades bursts in to the gathering and requests to be included, but then notices Socrates and becomes agitated as he regards himself as having been grossly insulted by him in the past. The nature of this ‘insult’ becomes clear when he is encouraged to speak in praise of Socrates and it turns out that he had so wanted to become Socrates’ Beloved that he invited him to his home several times in an attempt to seduce him. Socrates however clearly values intellectual over physical interactions and had rebuffed his attentions each time.

The problematic subject of the book is particularly an issue due to when my edition was published by Penguin Books, i.e. 1951, so sixteen years before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 which legalised sex between men (although definitely not between men and boys) was passed in the UK. It is therefore highly doubtful that a contemporary work dealing with the same subject would have been permitted and not banned under the Obscene Publications Act even though no homosexual acts are actually described in the book. Indeed in the introduction to the book, presumably written by the translator, Walter Hamilton, although not ascribed to him he writes:-

we must first face a fact which is so repugnant to the orthodox morality of our own times that there is a serious risk of it destroying the value and pleasure of The Symposium for many readers. The love with which the dialogue is concerned, and which is accepted as a matter of course by all the speakers, including Socrates, is homosexual love; it is assumed without argument that this alone is capable of satisfying a man’s highest and noblest aspirations, and the love of man and woman, when it is mentioned at all, is spoken of as altogether inferior, a purely physical impulse whose sole object is the procreation of children.

As is my usual habit I didn’t read the introduction until after I had completed the text, I don’t like the spoilers which are invariably included in this section and this would have been a big one. Walter Hamilton was master and honorary fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge and translated several books of ancient Greek for Penguin Books, I have enjoyed this translation as it was very readable so I’ll definitely be pulling other works he has translated off my shelves for future blog entries.

A Guide to Happiness – Epicurus


A person who takes particular pleasure in fine food and drink.
‘they see themselves as epicures—delighting in food that is properly prepared’

Late Middle English (denoting a disciple of Epicurus): via medieval Latin from Greek Epikouros ‘Epicurus’.

Oxford English Dictionary

The definition above was the only thing I knew about Epicurus before I picked up this book which is an extract (minus the notes) from ‘The Epicurean Philosophers’ edited by John Gaskin and published by Everyman in 1995. Epicurus lived in Athens between 341 and 270 BC and unfortunately like Sappho, whom I featured last month, the vast majority of his works have been lost to history with just three complete letters along with some fragments and two collections of quotes making it to the present day out of the estimated three hundred works he is believed to written. He formed his own philosophical school, largely in opposition to the prevalent Platonic teachings of the day and unlike the majority of his contemporaries he allowed women to join, in fact he positively encouraged them.

The book starts with his most famous work ‘the letter to Menoeceus’ which is an excellent place to begin as this epistle summarises his teachings and is very much a guide from a master to a pupil. Much to my surprise though Epicurus himself would not be impressed by the definition that has been derived from his name with it’s implication of, if not a hedonistic lifestyle, at least one of the pursuit of luxuries. In the letter to Menoeceus he includes the following instruction:

Once the pain due to want is removed, plain flavours give us as much pleasure as an extravagant diet, while bread and water bring the greatest possible pleasure to the life of one in need of them. To become accustomed, therefore, to simple and inexpensive food gives us all we need for health, alerts a man to the necessary tasks of life and when at intervals we approach luxuries we are in a better condition to enjoy them.

This exhortation to a simple diet, indeed simplicity in all needs, is reiterated several times in the collections of quotes also included in the book. Yes a follower of Epicurus should take delight when they encounter something special but this should be a happy rarity not an object for living. He emphasises again and again that you should be happy with what you have or can achieve because desiring what you don’t have, and cannot possibly get, simply leads to unhappiness for no good reason. He does however say that you should strive to be free of pain by which he means not just physical pain but also the pain of want for food, drink and shelter. He is not in favour of the hermit or of deprivation of the body to find truth for the soul as some philosophies would have their followers do, indeed attendees to his school would eat simple meals whilst discussing the matters in hand.

The flesh cries out to be saved from hunger, thirst and cold. For if a man possess this safety and hopes to possess it, he might rival even Zeus in happiness.

Another vital aspect of Epicurean philosophy is the importance of friendship and the support of friends when needed. A follower should live wisely, justly and well if they wish to have a pleasant life, they should also seek out friends, not for what they can do for you now but from the benefit of mutual support at times of need and companionship at all other times.

It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confidence of their help

All in all I found this book to be a fascinating read and indeed very different to what I was expecting from the definition that started this review. Epicurean philosophy seems like a very sound basis for living your life, lacking the want for excess and high on respect for your fellow man. It’s a pity he is now just associated with the enjoyment of fine wines and food. One final quotation emphasises this switch of emphasis from happiness with what you have to want for luxury that has happened over the millennia.

If you wish to make Pythocles rich, be not adding to his money but subtracting from his desires.

Come Close – Sappho

Sappho died over 2,500 years ago and in the intervening millennia almost all of her poetry has been lost. That she was highly regarded in her time can be seen from contemporaneous sources some of which regard her as the tenth muse ranking her amongst the gods themselves. But sadly she was neglected during the medieval period possibly due to the interpretation of the subject matter of much of her verse which didn’t fit into the strict moral compass of the catholic church and it was the church which performed much of the transcription from ancient texts to works that have lasted into our modern era. However excavations have uncovered fragments of her work even as recently as the last decade and we now have 650 lines of the estimated over 10000 she wrote. Apparently there were nine papyrus rolls of Sappho’s works held in the great library of Alexandria, the first one alone represented twice as much verse as we have available in the present day but those would have been lost in the fire and subsequent neglect whilst controlled by the Roman empire. That this book has roughly 450 lines makes it a positive bargain as it only cost 80p when first published in 2015 and now retails at £2 but still as it represents over two thirds of her extant output this is still money well spent. It is taken from the 2009 Penguin Classic book ‘Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments’ translated by Aaron Poochigian and simply collates the poems without any biographical information or analysis of the works which is the feature of the longer book.

Sappho wrote mainly lyric poetry, that is words designed to be accompanied by music, not songs as such but embellished by a tune, they tend to be in praise of heroic deeds of men and gods along with love songs praising a partner, or potential partner. It is her love poetry that is most famous and was most admired in antiquity but it is the belief that it specifically praises love of a woman for another woman that has given us the word sapphic for women attracted to women and also from her nationality as a resident of the Greek island Lesbos the word lesbian. Having said that this is not a collection of erotic verse, far from it, the lines are expected to be performed, these are expressions of love but nothing more explicit and make for a pleasant afternoon’s reading. It should be borne in mind as well that for the most part these are just fragments of poems, only two works are believed to be complete, so there may be much context that is lost. However I am in danger of writing a review that is longer than the entire book I have just read so let me finish with all we have left of one of the poems.

Stand and face me, dear; release
That fineness in your irises

May you bed down,
Head to breast, upon
The flesh
Of a plush

Daphnis and Chloe – Longus

It wasn’t long after starting reading this short book that I really wanted to slap both the protagonists. It’s a love story starting with two orphan babies that are separately found on the island of Lesbos with mysterious items that imply some history or maybe a fate from the gods for them however this seems to be largely forgotten as the story progresses. The two children are raised by families a short distance apart and Daphnis ends up as a goatherd whilst Chloe is a shepherdess and they grow up looking after their flocks together and slowly fall in love. What made them so frustrating though was their total naivety regarding sex, they look after goats and sheep for goodness sake surely they have noticed something over the years?

The book was written around 200AD, presumably on Lesbos, by a writer called Longus about whom nothing at all is known. There appear to be no other works by him and he has left no trace in history other than this short novel. Nobody even knows if Longus was his name or a even a real person or just something that has become attributed to the story. Through the tale the two of them suffer various calamities from being abducted by an invading army (Chloe) to falling in a pit dug to catch wolves (Daphnis) as they slowly progress from looking at the other one naked and getting all soppy (both of them) to trying kissing (oh this takes them ages to get round to) and very slowly finding out about sex (again both as it’s that sort of book)

20190129 daphnis and chloe 1

The main reason that I chose to read this though was to look again at translation and how styles have changed over the decades and this book is the only one where I have two different translations both printed by Penguin books but 55 years apart and where both translations are still in print. Above is the cover of the 2011 translation by Phiroze Vasunia when it was separated out as a single book in 2016 and below the original 1956 translation by Paul Turner.

20190129 daphnis and chloe 2

In ‘The Penguin Classics Book’ by Henry Elliot (review to come later) he writes

The 1968 reprint of Turner’s translation carried a notice “Former Penguin editions of this third century Greek novel, the prototype for all Arcadian love stories were we regret to say bowdlerised. Paul Turner has added the missing passages for this new edition on which the text is unexpurgated”

Now as I only have the 1956 original I cannot say what was put back in for the edition of 1968 but frankly the tale is not exactly controversial, certainly by today’s standards. In stating that I have to assume that the 2011 edition is not similarly censored but I cannot imagine that it would be. As I said at the start the story is so unrelated to sex that it defies belief for a large part of the book.

Along the way through the story they get increasing bad relationship advice, partly from men who want to have Chloe themselves and would be very happy to see Daphnis out of the way. It’s not really a give away to tell you that they do eventually get together, in the last few pages of the book and even their original parents are also revealed at this time. It is almost certainly the first example of a romance story and something that Mills and Boon would be very happy with nowadays, there are even pirates…