Stitches in Time: Penelope in Rome and Modern Britain

Homer’s Penelope is an intriguing character where more is left unsaid than said. This leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and has led to lots of different ideas as to what Penelope is really thinking. Many authors have assumed her voice, giving their own version of her story, although with varying degrees of success. In this post I am going to look at two different versions. One is by Ovid in 1st century AD Rome and the other is from a 20th century poem by Carol Ann Duffy. Despite Ovid’s attempt to convincingly portray her character, his representation of Penelope can be stripped away to reveal simply clever rhetoric. Brilliant as Ovid is, he cannot truly represent the female voice. For that we must turn to the recent poetry of Carol Ann Duffy.

Ovid’s Heroides is an interesting work, unique to the classics in the form of a series of imagined letters written from the heroines of epic and tragedy to their absent loves. The first of these is from Penelope to Odysseus. As in the other Heroides, Penelope begs for her husband’s return, complaining that she is bereft without him:

1-5

Penelope to the tardy Odysseus:
do not answer these lines, but come, for
Troy is dead and the daughters of Greece rejoice.
But all of Troy and Priam himself

are not worth the price I’ve paid for victory.

In Ovid Penelope does not subscribe to the epic values of Homer. For her martial glory has no value, and she hates the war in Troy for taking her husband away from her:

6-12

How often I have wished that Paris
had drowned before he reached our welcoming shores.
If he had died I would not have been
compelled now to sleep in my cold bed
complaining always of the tiresome
prospect of endless nights and days spent working
like a poor woman at my tedious loom.

Line 12 here refers to the funeral shroud that she weaves for Laertes in the Odyssey. The motif of weaving is extremely important to the many characterisations of Penelope. In Homer the shroud is an example of Penelope’s characteristic cunning, promising the suitors that she will marry one of them when it is finished, but every night unpicking her stitches so that it is never completed.

Yet here the shroud does not reveal the cunning or resourcefulness of Penelope. Instead of tricking the suitors she uses it to deceive herself, seeking through her work to lose track of the long nights suffered by lonely wives. This is symbolic in understanding Ovid’s Penelope: she is not the cunning match for her epic husband, rather she is the abandoned lover of elegiac love poetry.

Penelope and the Suitors, by John William Waterhouse (1912)

Penelope and the Suitors, by John William Waterhouse (1912)

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Virgil’s Aeneid and the Gates of Sleep: A False Dream of Empire

There is a tradition in classical epic of two Gates of Sleep, one of horn and one of ivory. Through the ivory one comes deceptive dreams, and through the horn gate comes true dreams that will be fulfilled. These gates are first mentioned in the Odyssey, where Penelope states that she dreamt an eagle flew down and killed 20 geese (the implication being that Odysseus is the eagle and the geese are the suitors who are desecrating his home). However she then questions whether or not her dream will come true:

(19.560-567)

“My friend, dreams are things hard to interpret, hopeless to puzzle
out, and people find that not all of them end in anything.
There are two gates through which the insubstantial dreams issue.
One pair of gates is made of horn, and one of ivory.
Those of the dreams which issue through the gates of sawn ivory,
these are deceptive dreams, their message is never accomplished.
But those that come into the open through the gates of the polished
horn accomplish the truth for any mortal who sees them.”

In the scholia for this passage (that is, the ancient commentaries) it is explained that horn is a reference to the eyes, because the ‘outer membrane of the eye is hornlike in appearance’, whereas ivory refers to the mouth, because teeth are ivory coloured. Therefore the implication is that things seen are more reliable than things spoken.

However, by far the most interesting reference to the Gates of Sleep comes in Virgil’s epic about the founding of Rome: the Aeneid. In Book Six Aeneas journeys down to the underworld with a prophetess called the Sibyl, where the soul of his father Anchises tells him his destiny as the founder of the Roman Empire. In many ways this book is extremely celebratory, praising the glory of Rome. This is how it has long been understood, with generations of schoolboys being taught to read Virgil as the great champion of the Roman nation, no doubt inspiring the great Western empire- and nation-builders of the 19th century.

It is has since been shown that there is much more to Virgil’s epic. Scholars have detected in the Aeneid a profound sensitivity to the human suffering that is the result of Aeneas’ mission. Book 6 is particularly responsive to such readings. In the underworld Aeneas is shown a pageant of the future heroes of Rome and told about their great deeds, firing him up with a patriotic ‘love for the glory that was to come(6.889). But the book then has an unexpected ending. In order to leave the underworld, Aeneas must pass through the Gates of Sleep:

(6.893-898)

“There are two gates of sleep: one is called the Gate of Horn and it is an easy exit for true shades; the other is made all in gleaming white ivory, but through it the powers of the underworld send false dreams up to the heavens. Here on the night did Anchises walk with his son and with the Sibyl and spoke such words to them as he sent them on their journey through the Gate of Ivory.”

Aeneas leaves through the Gate of Ivory, the gate of false dreams.

Aenead and the Sibyl, artist unknown (circa 1800)

Aeneas and the Sibyl, artist unknown (circa 1800)

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Horace 3.26: The Unassailable Chloe

Another Horace ode, because I firmly believe there can be no such thing as too much Horace. In a temple of Venus the poet dedicates his weapons of love to the goddess: he is done with his campaigns of the heart. But the ode ends unexpectedly when Horace has one last request: please punish Chloe for rejecting him.

I have lived my life, till lately popular with girls, and I have been a soldier not without renown: now these weapons and this lyre that has completed its military service this wall shall keep which guards the left side of sea-born Venus. Here, here place the gleaming torches and the crowbars and the bows that threaten barred doors:

“O goddess, you who dwell in blessed Cyprus and Memphis that is free from Thracian snow, queen touch just once with uplifted lash Chloe the arrogant”.

The tone of the poem is that of mock-solemnity. The first word, ‘I have lived’, is the same as that of Dido’s suicide speech, making Horace’s dedication incredibly melodramatic: as far as he is concerned his life is over.

Horace uses the common metaphor of the warfare of love. All the weapons that Horace describes: torch, crowbar, and bow, are those that would be required to assault a besieged city, or in this case, a girl’s door that has been barred against the poet. The imagery is comic in the grand, epic resonances of military language used to describe his many love affairs.

When the prayer begins a Roman audience would be expecting a traditional prayer of dedication to the goddess. This still appears to be the case when it opens with a conventional list of the goddess’ dwelling places. However, while Cyprus is her most famous home, Memphis is a more unusual choice. Memphis was in Egypt and the following reference to Thrace, located in comparatively chilly northern Greece, is a reference to Chloe’s homeland. He is asking for the goddess to melt Chloe’s frozen heart.

But the ode does not suggest a searing passion on Horace’s part. He wants ‘arrogant’ Chloe to be subjugated under Venus’ whip. The implication is that she has humiliated Horace, and for his revenge the poet wants her in turn to feel the painful lash of love. 3.26 then ends with an amusing twist: the reason for Horace’s solemn despair is the slight he feels at Chloe’s persistent “no”. Far from giving up on love, his proclaimed retirement is no more than a strategic withdrawal.

Sources:

Translation from Gordon Williams (1969)

Gordon Williams, ed., The Third Book of Horace’s Odes (Oxford, 1969).
Kenneth Quinn, ed. Horace the Odes (Bristol, 1980).

Laments for Lost Friends in Ancient Rome

The below are perhaps two of the most moving poems to have survived from Ancient Rome. The poets Catullus and Horace comfort friends on the death of someone dear to them. Both odes are deeply poignant in their grief, but also use poetry to wilfully defy mortality itself by showing that those we loved are never truly lost to us.

In poem 96, Catullus comforts his friend Calvus on the death of his wife, telling him that her spirit is gladdened by the love her husband shows in his great grief:

96

If anything from our grief, can reach beyond
the silent tomb, Calvus, and be pleasing and welcome,
grief with which, in longing, we revive our lost loves,
and weep for vanished friendships once known,
surely Quintilia is not so much grieved at her early death,
as joyful for your love.

In Ode 1.24, Horace comforts the famous poet of the Aeneid Virgil at the death of their mutual friend and teacher Quintilius. I have only included the last 3 stanzas as they are the ones I want to discuss. Horace tells his friend that no amount of grieving can help them to bring their friend back, comparing Virgil to Orpheus, the mythical poet who performed for the King of the underworld to try in vain to bring back his dead wife. The god Mercury was the guardian of the boundaries between the upper and lower worlds, and Horace reminds us that those who pass by him are never suffered to return.

1.24

Many are the good men who weep for his dying,
none of them, Virgil, weep more profusely than you.
Piously, you ask the gods for him, alas, in vain:
not so was he given to us.

Even if you played on the Thracian lyre, listened
to by the trees, more sweetly than Orpheus could,
would life then return, to that empty phantom,
once Mercury, with fearsome wand,

who won’t simply re-open the gates of Fate
at our bidding, has gathered him to the dark throng?
It is hard: but patience makes more tolerable
whatever wrong’s to be righted.

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Nero’s Empire in Roman Literature: A Godless Land

In my post on Seneca’s Thyestes I talk about how how texts changed under the Emperor Nero. Literature written in this time was a lot darker and messier, and one of the most striking differences is the disappearance of the gods. In Augustan literature the Roman Empire is ordained by Zeus and a fulfilment of man’s manifest destiny, but under Nero chaos and uncertainty rule the world, there is no divine order or great purpose, and mankind are powerless under their psychotic rulers.

Seneca’s play Thyestes is a very pointed example of this change. In Ancient Greek tragedy the play usually ends with the appearance of a god, who explains to the characters how they can right everything and earn forgiveness for their misdeeds. In Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes however the gods do not appear. Thyestes has been tricked by his brother Atreus into eating his own sons at a feast, revenge for scheming with Atreus’ wife to overthrow him. Horrified by the knowledge of what he has done, Thyestes implores the gods to fulfil their role as divine rulers and punish the two brothers’ unholy crimes, listing Tartarus, Acheron and Phlegethon, places in hell traditionally reserved for the worst sinners. But humanity has been abandoned and there is no justice to be found. He cries go unanswered and where the gods are expected to step in there is a terrible silence.

Saturn Devouring his Son by Rubens (1636)

Saturn Devouring his Son by Rubens (1636)

Seneca’s Thyestes (1004-1021)

ATREUS
…Now, father, spread out thine arms;
they have come. Do you recognise your sons?

[He uncovers the platter, revealing the severed heads of Thyestes’ sons.]

THYESTES
I recognise my brother. How can you bear such a crime,
Earth? Why do you not plunge into the Stygian
darkness below 
and, on a gaping path
to empty chaos, not rip apart this kingdom and it’s king?

Why, tearing this whole palace from the ground,
not raze Mycenas? We should already both be standing
before Tantalus. With prison bars torn apart
on every side, 
if there is a land below Tartarus, 
below our grandfathers, send there your chasm 
with a huge abyss and hide us buried
beneath all of Acheron. Let guilty souls wander
above our heads and fiery Phlegethon,
with its burning waters 
driving burning sands,
flows violently above our place of exile.
 – Why Earth do you still lie an inactive mass?
The gods have fled.

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Virgil’s Aeneid Book 4: Dido’s Story.

Dido is Roman epic’s most tragic female character. She first appears in the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic about the founding of Rome by the Trojan hero Aeneas. Dido is the founder and first Queen of Carthage, having fled from her homeland after her husband’s death. She is driven mad by love for Aeneas when he washes up on her shore, and in a frenzied passion commits suicide when the hero continues his journey to Italy. Her portrayal has been much debated, but whether she is the mad and dangerous foreigner, or the wretched and pitiable woman, there is no denying the beauty and tragedy of Virgil’s poetry.

The Death of DIdo by Sacchi Andrea via Wikimedia Commons

The Death of Dido by Sacchi Andrea via Wikimedia Commons

We first see Dido in Book 1. Here she is the dignified queen, beautiful and wealthy, presiding over the building of her great city. This city is Carthage, which will one day be Rome’s great enemy. By Virgil’s time Rome has fought three wars against Carthage, the most famous culminating in 218 BC when Hannibal led an army of elephants through the Alps to surprise the Romans. In 146 BC the Romans won a decisive victory and burned Carthage to the ground, ending the conflict once and for all.

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