Archives For Roman

Who is Your Muse?

August 8, 2015 — 18 Comments

reposeWhich Muse provides your inspiration? Poetry, history, music, dance, epic?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Greek & Roman concept of the Muse. While I don’t regard these personifications as true “beings,” they provide wonderful insight into the multifaceted nature of inspiration.

The Muses were personifications (representations of abstract concepts in human form). It’s not the same thing as believing in a “god,” although devotional exercises could be offered in “their” honor. (The simple people, in fact, may have regarded them as minor deities.)

The number of Muses—who represented the arts and fields of knowledge—varied in the ancient world. However, nine constituted the final Roman tabulation.

Possessing a historical nature, my “matron” Muse would necessarily be Clio (History).

Sadly, I’ve learned Muses don’t always fulfill their promises. At my suggestion, my wife agreed to name our puppy Calli, abbreviated from Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. Unfortunately, at ten months her raucous barking sounds anything but poetic.

In his biography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, C.S. Lewis includes an interesting reference to Muses. It relates to one of their secondary qualities, civility. In the following passage, Lewis had been sent to the Headmaster of his school for review due to “bad work” (i.e. inadequate academic performance).

The Headmaster misunderstood Smewgy’s report and thought there had been some complaint about my manners. Afterward Smewgy got wind of the Head’s actual words and at once corrected the mistake, drawing me aside and saying, “There has been some curious misunderstanding. I said nothing of the sort about you. You will have to be whipped if you don’t do better at your Greek Grammar next week, but naturally that has nothing to do with your manners or mine.”

The idea that the tone of conversation between one gentleman and another should be altered by a flogging (any more than by a duel) was ridiculous. His manner was perfect: no familiarity, no hostility, no threadbare humor; mutual respect; decorum. “Never let us live with amousia” was one of his favorite maxims: amousia, the absence of the Muses. And he knew, as Spenser knew, that courtesy was of the Muses.

For Lewis’ instructor, the concept of the Muse meant more than simply inspiring some form of art or literature. The influence of the Muses flowed into the broader culture. In a sense, it reflected the distinction the Greeks held between themselves and the barbarians. Surely the uncivilized savages had no Muses of their own!

Sources of Inspiration

It isn’t uncommon today for people to use muse (lower case) as a shorthand for a person who inspires them. Pablo Picasso, for example, considered his favorite model (and mistress) to be his muse. The portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter above, entitled “Repose,” surely conveys the profound vision she provided him.

In cinema, there was the 1999 movie aptly named The Muse, which posits a deflated screenwriter seeking the aid of the supposed “daughter of Zeus.”

Speaking of Christians . . . they too identify a source for their inspiration. In addition to other human beings, who may offer wisdom, insight or encouragement, the preeminent source of inspiration is the Holy Spirit.

There is a danger in considering God himself to be the source of one’s inspiration. When taken to an extreme, it results in God being blamed for a lot of maudlin prose and gross violations of grammar.

Fortunately, few Christians believe their own writing is infallible. That divine quality is reserved for the Scriptures themselves.

Editors at Christian publishing houses would probably argue with my statement that few Christian authors are so presumptuous as to claim God “breathed” into them every word found in their manuscripts.

So, who is your Muse? When I said Clio is mine, it is because History—the story of humanity and especially God’s hand in it—fascinates me more intensely than any other subject. For you, it could be music or poetry.

Even astronomy has its own Muse, Urania. And, gazing at the boundless heavens God spoke into existence, it is no wonder that many would find their inspiration there.

A Classical Lewisian Poem

C.S. Lewis wrote a number of poems that are satires of Greek and Roman poetry. Some of them are quite witty.

For those interested in reading one such poem, I am pleased to offer “A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage.” In C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet, Bruce Edwards describes it as “a sharp attack upon moderns who believe they are heralds of a return to the ‘golden age’ of paganism.” Included in his critique are F.R. Leavis and Bertrand Russell whose philosophy he rejected.

A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage

You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism.’
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And [F.R.] Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers,
heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it. By the hearth the white-armed venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. At the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last Defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

_____

You can read about my true Muse here.

 

Avoiding Gadzookeries

August 25, 2014 — 8 Comments

gadzookeryWriting quality historical fiction is challenging. This is especially true if one wishes to avoid the common crutch that a talented writer of the last century first labeled “gadzookery.”

And just what is this faux pas we should avoid when writing about the past? Well, it relates most directly to the dialog placed on the lips of historical figures. The offensive technique involves the overuse of archaic expressions or phrases. (Some would argue it includes any use of any archaisms.)

If the word gadzookery sounds a tad, how shall I put it, “goofy” to you, you may prefer using another word that means the same thing: “tushery.” Tushery was coined by Robert Louis Stevenson. Way back in the nineteenth century.

Gadzookery is a newer version, insulting the same lazy writing technique. I believe it may have been coined by Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992). Sutcliff’s historical influence has exerted a literary influence on my life second only to C.S. Lewis.*

The article about Sutcliff in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature praises her work, saying, “She carefully creates dialogue in her novels that recollects the speech of a bygone era without falling into what she termed ‘gadzookery.’”

Having tested the waters of historical fiction myself, I know this to be far more difficult that it may sound.

Sutcliff had several things in common with C.S. Lewis. Both wrote for adults and for children. (It was her young adult series about the decline of Roman influence in Britain that sparked my own lifelong interest in Rome.)

Both authors also received the Carnegie Medal for their work. When Lewis was awarded his, he received a congratulatory letter from Pauline Baynes, who had illustrated several of his books. He responded quite graciously.

Dear Miss Baynes, Very nice to hear from you again, and thanks for sending on the book, which I have returned to Lane. Thanks for your congratulations on the Carnegie, but is it not rather ‘our’ Medal? I’m sure the illustrations were taken into consideration as well as the text. I am well, and as happy as a man can be whose wife is desperately ill.

Although C.S. Lewis had married, quite late in life, the two authors were alike in spending most of their life single. Sutcliff, in fact, lived with her parents during most of her life, having suffered crippling arthritis as a child. She did not resent remaining unmarried. In a 1992 interview she said,

Beatrix Potter wrote all her gorgeous stories when she was very lonely and not very happy—after she married, she never wrote another thing. Nothing worth reading, anyway.

Another similarity between the two was that they both fell under the powerful sway of myth during their childhoods. They used their familiarity with its rich echoes to imbue their own work with themes that flowed far beyond the familiar channels travelled by other writers.

Each of them took their readers seriously, and refused to speak down to them. That is why they share one more quality I wish to mention in closing—their high standards. Neither Lewis nor Sutcliff could tolerate poor writing. And their finely tuned skills meant neither ever needed to resort to gadzookery.

______

* Excepting, of course, the Bible itself, which is literature of an entirely different sort. I don’t consider it fair to compare mortal writers, no matter how inspired, to a volume I regard as God’s written word.

Beware the Tablet

May 22, 2014 — 9 Comments

tabletDid the ancient wax writing tablet of the Romans possess the power to terrorize enemies? Two ancient texts suggest that under some circumstances, carrying these humble wax tablets could cost someone their life.

I love history. I love writing. When you combine the two, I’m in a literary paradise. I just read a journal article that took me there. I recently joined a fascinating online organization called Academia.edu, where international scholars freely share their research.

It’s like stumbling into a free four-star buffet for the mind.

I do not only love words themselves. I’ve long been interested in the physical or mechanical aspects of writing, as well. Along this line, I’ve written here in the past about typewriters and the printing press.

I do not recall, however, writing about one of the most fascinating literary devices used by both common and gifted writers for century upon century. I am referring to the wax tablets of Rome, and the often elaborate styluses used to write on them.

I read a captivating article today that related a pair of historical incidents—one ancient, the other medieval—in which modest tablets such as these were mistaken for weapons. Deadly consequences followed.

In a Welsh journal entitled Studia Celtica, there appears “Tírechán on St. Patrick’s Writing Tablets,” by David Woods of University College, Cork. Cork is, of course, in Ireland, that enchanted isle from which the sainted C.S. Lewis also sprang. In fact, in a letter written to a child, Lewis once wrote: “I was born in Holy Ireland where there are no snakes because, as you know, St. Patrick sent them all away.

The purpose of the article was to explain how writing tablets being carried by Saint Patrick and his party could be mistaken (from a distance) as swords. The author is persuasive in revealing the historic scene and the potential for misunderstanding. In doing so, he appeals to an ancient incident in which Octavius (who would become Caesar Augustus) unjustly executed a political enemy he suspected had posed a threat.

When Quintus Gallius, a praetor, held some folded tablets under his robe as he was paying his respects, Augustus, suspecting that he had a sword concealed there, did not dare to make a search on the spot for fear it should turn out to be something else; but a little later he had Gallius hustled from the tribunal by some centurions and soldiers, tortured him as if he were a slave, and though he made no confession, ordered his execution, first tearing out the man’s eyes with his own hand.

The incident with Saint Patrick was not quite so gruesome, although it may have easily turned bloody, if the pagan’s hoping to instigate a bloodbath had succeeded.

Patrick came from Mag Arthicc to Drummut Cérrigi . . . and people saw him with eight or nine men, holding written tablets in their hands like Moses. The pagans shouted as they saw them, demanding that one should kill the holy men, and said: “They have swords in their hands for killing people. In their hands they look wooden by day, but we believe they are swords of iron for shedding blood.”

The big crowd was on the point of doing harm to the holy men; but there was a man among them who felt pity, Hercaith by name, of the race of Nothe, the father of Feradach. He believed in Patrick’s God, and Patrick baptized him and his son Feradach.

Fortunately, reason prevailed, and Patrick continued to spread the gospel in the land to which he had originally been carried as a slave.

The article also references occasions where the stylus, rather than the innocuous tablet, was used as a weapon. “For example, when his assassins confronted Julius Caesar in the senate in 44 BC, he sought to defend himself with his stylus, and stabbed one of them, Casca, in the arm with it.”

The pen, (the original) Caesar’s weapon of last resort.

This delightful article offered a wealth of knowledge. It alerted me to the fact that it is not only wax tablets that are threatening. Those who are wise will exercise extreme caution, whenever they are confronted by any and all writing tools.

Writing Life Scripts

September 13, 2013 — 9 Comments

ben hurI was shaped by the heroic religious films of the 1950s and 60s. The powerful messages of epic movies like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and The Robe planted within my young Christian heart an awareness of nobility and radical self-sacrifice.

About twenty years ago, I spent a year doing graduate work in education. One of my Educational Psychology classes was taught by a professor who was a devotee of Transactional Analysis. I don’t recall too much about TA, aside from one of its principles that resonated with me.

It’s a concept called Life Scripts. Without going into great detail, it is an often subconscious notion of how we “think” our lives will or should play out. It’s adjusted throughout our lives, but the basic theme is established when we are quite young.*

A recent article says “script is broadly understood as a series of decisions, formed as coping strategies in childhood, which continue to shape the life course outside of awareness.”**

It was only as an adult that I realized just how significant an impression these virtuous stories made on me. I recalled the countless times I lay in bed at night rehearsing the story of The Robe. I was the unbelieving Roman soldier, converted by the gentle witness of the wrongfully persecuted Christians.*** Ultimately, I took my stand with them, defending them and voluntarily laying down my life for Christ.

That same plot line still echoes through my mind and soul.

I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to such positive influences while my self identity was being shaped. And I pray for children today whose parents allow them to be exposed (at terribly vulnerable ages!) to violent, fearful and morally ambiguous influences.

Those precious minds and hearts are scarred by the vulgarity and immorality that are endemic in modern cinema, television and music. May God have mercy on them.

C.S. Lewis lived during the era when the virtuous dramas such as those named above were at the peak of their influence.

In a diary entry from the mid-1920s, he mentions Quo Vadis in passing. He is describing his weekend schedule.

Saturday 22 April: Got up about 6.30 and did the same jobs as yesterday. Was settled to work by 9.5 o’clock and put in an excellent morning . . . Sheila Gonner—jolly child—came to tea. Dorothy is to come back tomorrow: so we shall no longer be servantless. At her request I lent her my crib to Tacitus’ History for her sister Rose— I wonder what makes her imagine that she would like it? Possibly early Christian novels of the Quo Vadis type. Worked again after tea, and from supper till ten o’clock, finishing Herodotus. The last few pages of the IXth Book I now read for the first time, having got tired of it on my first reading . . .

I find this diary passage intriguing, in the way that Lewis posits a reader’s potential interest in classical literature as arising from their exposure to ancient Rome via contemporary novels. That’s precisely where my own lifelong fascination with the Roman empire was born.

If you’ve never seen these three movies, I commend them to you. I would also encourage you to consider reading one or all of the novels. They are available for free download in various digital formats.

Quo Vadis

Ben Hur

The Robe

_____

* I’m a pastor and historian, not a psychologist, so I don’t pretend to understand all of the implications. Because of that, I don’t endorse TA as a fully valid theory. What’s more, in our fallen world it’s obvious that many early “life scripts” can be based on wounds inflicted on neglected or abused children. In such cases, particularly where the scripts are destructive, we are not “destined” to live out a tragedy. By the grace of God, even the saddest of stories can be redeemed and “rewritten” into tales of hope and wonder.

** From “Script or Scripture?” by Jo Stuthridge in Life Scripts edited by Richard Erskine (Karnac Books, 2010).

*** It didn’t hurt that the main Christian disciple in the film was the lovely and chaste Diana, played by the British actress Jean Simmons. But that’s another story, and it’s important to note that these life scripts are pre-pubescent creations, so they are motivated by much deeper impulses than hormones. As the previously footnoted quotation referred to them, they are fundamentally “coping strategies” for survival in the calm (or frequently turbulent) world in which children find themselves.

Roman Realism

April 14, 2012 — 9 Comments

There are many things about ancient Rome that fascinate me. My love for the era finds its roots in the wonderful books of Rosemary Sutcliff and the spectacular cinematic epics like “Ben Hur” that were released during my childhood.

Over the years I’ve studied the Roman world in great depth. I shifted my numismatic interested to coins of the Constantinian era. (You can still purchase the genuine articles relatively inexpensively. Thanks to the tragic individuals who buried their hoards during troubled times and never returned to recover them.)

One of my favorite things about the Romans was their realism which manifested itself even in the busts they carved. Unlike the Greeks who strove to idealize everything, the Romans were pragmatic. If the honoree’s face lacked character (or suffered from an excess of the same), then the artist was expected to reflect that fact.

Just look at all the character in the face of the unknown Roman portrayed above. Or, how about this one. So vivid. Imagine just how difficult life must have been for this thirty-two year citizen.* Yes, they did an impressively faithful job portraying the subjects of their artistic studies.

I’m not naïve enough to think that the emperors’ likenesses weren’t “airbrushed” just a tad. But take a look at the image to the left. It was made of an extremely important person, Pompey the Great, and it’s obviously intended to be a true likeness. This image always reminds me of a troubled chaplain assistant who served with me during my isolated tour in Korea. That sergeant’s tussled coiffure witnessed to a nasty hangover. I cannot attribute Pompey’s unruly mane to the same cause.

C.S. Lewis said the first requirement of art is to engage, to connect in some fashion with the interests of the viewer. He wrote this in his essay “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem,” which he wrote in 1942.

To interest is the first duty of art; no other excellence will even begin to compensate for failure in this, and very serious faults will be covered by this, as by charity.

If I lined up a dozen beautiful and stylized Grecian busts against one wall and the same number of Roman examples against another, I have no doubt which would merit and receive the greatest attention. Idealized portraiture can be appreciated. But realistic likenesses, that celebrate the uniqueness of each human being, these are truly engaging.

Oh, and in closing let me say that I’m just vain enough—should anyone undertake to create a bust of me—to want it crafted in the Greek style, rather than the Roman . . .

* True age unknown . . . but you already knew that, right?

The Ides of March

March 15, 2012 — 7 Comments

I was introduced to ancient Rome as a young reader. Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992) wrote such fine historical fiction that it appeals to young readers and adults alike. A film version of The Eagle of the Ninth was made just last year. And I’m a sucker for a good Roman movie (wherein “good” excludes all of the so-called spaghetti gladiator films made in the fifties and sixties).

As a student of Rome, I find it worth noting today’s date. Even those who know “nothing” about Rome should understand its significance. You don’t need to have studied Latin or the classics to understand the warning “Beware the Ides of March.” The Ides is the fifteenth day of the month. And it was on this day that Julius Caesar was murdered by members of the Roman Senate.

It was left to his adopted son, Caesar Augustus, to transform the Republic into an autocratic Empire. It was this Caesar who ruled Rome at the time of Jesus’ birth, and he bequeathed the title of “Caesar” to his heirs. When Jesus requested that the Pharisees and Herodians “show him the coin for the tax,” we do not know whether Augustus or Caesar Tiberius adorned it. It matters not, since the image of Caesar was tantamount to representing Rome itself.

Jesus taught his disciples to be discerning in the loyalties we offer. We are to be responsible citizens. But we are also required to remember our true citizenship rests in the New Jerusalem.

C.S. Lewis astutely illustrated this truth. He lived during two global conflicts, and served in combat defending his homeland. Yet Lewis recognized the dangers of placing our trust (faith) in even the “noble” things of this world.

A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself. (“Learning in War-Time” – a sermon preached in Oxford in 1939).

So, on this day when Julius’ dreams of glory bled out in Rome . . . may you and I find refuge, hope, peace and meaning in the One who bled and died for each of us on Calvary.