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The Long Conversation

Ronan Sheehan

SPQR, by Mary Beard, Faber & Faber, 544 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1846683800

A few years ago the late Shane MacThomais guided the Legal History Society on a tour of Glasnevin Cemetery, a tour which favoured the graves of some of the many lawyers who lie there. Shane, ever mischievous, diverted the troupe when an opportunity arose to the graves of his beloved republicans, especially those who had perished at the hands of lawyers. The lawyers took this in good part. It would have taken a dull soul indeed to wish to stem the witty flow. However I did enter a mild protest at his observations upon the tomb of my, by family tradition, maternal ancestor, John Philpot Curran. Shane’s opinion of the Irish Cicero was tepid at best. He had failed to defend Robert Emmet. He had banished his daughter, Sarah, from his house on account of her relationship with Emmet. He had curried favour with the authorities to get himself the position of Master Of The Rolls.

Daniel O’Connell worshipped Curran as the soul of the Irish Republic. He had him reinterred in Glasnevin in 1837, some twenty years after his death in London and burial in Brompton Cemetery. He arranged for the placing of an edifice over his grave which is modelled upon the sarcophagus of Lucius Scipio Barbatus, consul of Rome in 280 BC. The sarcophagus is the distinguishing feature of the Tomb of the Scipios, uncovered at the edge of Rome not long before. The point was to align Curran, himself an outstanding classicist, with the great family whose tradition of service to the Roman Republic was unequalled.

I gently drew Shane aside and explained to him why Curran’s was a republican grave. He listened courteously. But I doubted that Curran would be admitted to Valhalla beside Pearse, O'Donovan Rossa, et al. I thought of this episode reading chapter four of Mary Beard’s epic work: “Rome’s Great Leap Forward. Two centuries of change: from the Tarquins to Scipio Long Beard”. SPQR charts the progress of Rome from small settlement on the banks of the Tiber to empire stretching from Scotland to India. The word consul, a term synonomous with the Republic, first appears on the Tomb of the Scipios, which contains more than thirty burials. Mary Beard reckons that “It was at some point during this crucial period between 500 B.C. and 300 B.C., between the end of the Tarquins and the lifetime of Scipio “Long-Beard” that many of Rome’s characteristic institutions took shape. Romans not only defined the basic principles of Republican politics and liberties but also began to develop the structures, the assumptions and (to put it more grandly) a ‘way of doing things’ that underpinned their later imperial expansion. This involved a revolutionary formulation of what it was to be Roman, which defined their ideas of citizenship for centuries, set Rome apart from every other classical city state and eventually informed many modern views of the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. It was not for nothing that both Lord Palmerston and John F. Kennedy broadcast the Latin phrase Civis Romanus Sum ‘I am a Roman Citizen’ as a slogan for their times.”

That is what O’Connell intended the sarcophagus to proclaim to the crowds which attended the reinterment of Curran in 1837. Some of them had heard him defend Hamilton Rowan forty odd years before, or read that speech, edited by Thomas Davis, modelled so carefully upon Cicero’s masterpiece Pro Milone. Mary Beard is recognised as a leading classicist of our times. The lucidity, erudition, vitality and measure of her writing everywhere sustain that view. But if classical scholarship is an intellectual discipline, how can the discussion of a complex question of Roman politics or literature end with a statement like “It’s hard to resist the feeling ...” or “We might guess ...”?

The author provides the answer in the last two sentences of her book: “We do the Romans a disservice if we heroize them, as much as if we demonize them. But we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to take them seriously ‑ and if we close our long conversation with them. This book, I hope, is not just A History Of Rome, but part of that conversation with its Senate and People: SPQR.”

A conversation is not the same thing as a study. While I don’t doubt that Mary Beard’s use of her sources is accurate, and her deployment of literary material fair, it is her as it were emotional encounter with the Romans that gives her book its light, vital mood and made this reader not want to put it down. A question: who are the “we” she refers to, one part of the conversation with the Romans? The long conversation?

The 606 pages here under consideration disclose not a single reference to Ireland. For an Irish reader, this is disappointing. “We Irish” can claim what is perhaps the oldest tradition in the classics, certainly in Latin, to the west of Italy. Does “we” mean, in the broadest possible terms, this generation, her generation, our generation? Does it mean everyone who lived after the Romans ‑ who therefore were part of “our long conversation with them”? From an impartial point of view, this concern does not impact upon the quality of what Mary Beard has to say about Rome.

At UCD, forty years ago, our Latin textbooks were invariably published by the Oxford and Cambridge University presses and were solid, unremarkable documents. Exceptio probat legem ‑ the exception proves the rule: De Vita Agricolae Corneli Taciti. Agricola was Tacitus’s father-in-law and governor of Britain from AD78 to 84. The brief biography is the basis for all writing about the Romans in Britain. It contains some of the earliest references to Ireland. Thus chapter 24: “Solum coelumque et ingenia cultusque hominum haud multum a Britannia differunt;(in melius) aditus portus que per commercia et negotiatores cogniti.” “In soil and climate, and in the character and civilisation of its people, it is much like Britain. Its ports and harbours are better known than those of Britain from merchants who trade there.” The problem was whether the phrase was melius or in melius. The one said the Irish harbours were better known than the British ones. The other said the Irish harbours had become in themselves better known. Editor RM Ogilvie cries foul at the suggestion that Ireland might have been better known than England ‑ a country which however did not exist in Tacitus’s time.

The following clause is corrupt. In melius cannot be taken either with differunt since it contradicts haud multum, nor with cogniti, since it cannot be imagined that Tacitus was so ignorant of the truth as to suppose that Ireland was better known than England. It is easier to assume that the words are interpolated than to suppose that something has dropped out, because there is nothing obviously missing from the sense. A patriotic motive for such an interpolation would be ready to hand if Irish monks had been concerned in the transmission of the text but this cannot be definitely established.

Mary Beard does not converse with this dimension of Tacitus Agricola. In 1920 Browne and Nolan published an edition of Virgil for use by Irish schools (thirty-two counties then). The editor drew students’ attention to The Irish Aeneid, the fist ever translation of the Aeneid into a vernacular language, made by Solomon O’Droma for the Book Of Ballymote about 1390.

Imtheachta Aeniasa reshapes Virgil’s epic to suit the taste and values of the audience for whom it was destined. Poetry is rendered into prose. The time-scheme is reworked into a linear sequence. Some material ‑ genealogies and speeches of the Gods ‑ is cut out. Some well known passages from Irish literature are inserted. Aeneas in places resembles Cuchulain, for example when he first appears to Dido. The emotional and sensuous matter of the Aeneid is heightened: the beauty of the landscape, the pain of the defeated, jewellery, the sorrow of parting. (George Calder introduction to The Irish Aeneid, Irish Texts Society)

Mary Beard does not converse with this dimension of Virgil’s Aeneid.

The book opens with Cicero, favouring his actions in suppressing the conspiracy of Catiline. Much space is devoted to his Pro Milone, but nothing to Curran’s imitation. Karl Marx did take note. He recommended Engels to read Thomas Davis’s edition of Curran’s speeches: “Curran is the only great advocate of the eighteenth century.” Thomas Davis wrote “A Nation Once Again”, in which the youthful patriot is inspired by the ancient Roman and Greek defiance of foreign oppressors. RM Ogilvie would not have liked this, since it aligns the English with the Persians, the Irish with the Romans and Greeks:

When boyhood’s fire was in my blood
I dreamt of ancient freemen
Of Greece and Rome who bravely stood
One thousand men and three men
And then I hoped that I might see
Our fetters rent in twain
And Ireland long a province be
A nation once again

How many times has that been played at Croke Park? Part of Ireland’s conversation with the classical world. By contrast, the English identification with Rome often favours the imperial dimension. Was it a viceroy of India who said that India was never better governed than when each member of the cabinet could write good Latin hexameters?

SPQR is an astonishing achievement. Not alone does it record every major aspect of Roman civilisation over a thousand years, it gives one the impression of living in that culture. The chief sources are literary, but archaeology, ruins, graffiti, epitaphs, headstones, you name it, are also used to effect. Recent scholarship is deployed in a manner that communicates the flavour and excitement of ongoing enquiry.

Mary Beard is less convincing, for this reader at any rate, when she engages poetry. Especially the poetry of Gaius Valerius Catullus. A famous lyric goes like this:

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assisda
mi basia mille, deinde centum

Her translation is, for me, insipid:

Let’s live, my Lesbia, and let’s love
And the mutterings of stern old men
Let’s value them at a single penny ...
Give me a thousand kisses.

Leonard Cohen’s A Thousand Kisses Deep derives from this. But Mary is having none of it. Scholarship is thrown to the wind in a series of bald, condemnatory assertions without the assistance of any supporting evidence:

Colourful as this material is, it cannot be taken at face value. Part of it is not much more than erotic fantasy. Part of it is a classic reflection of common patriarchal anxieties. Throughout history, some men have justified their domination of women by simultaneously relishing and deploring an image of the dangerous and transgressive female (Catullus Odi et Amo - I hate and Love; Leonard Cohen Songs Of Love and Hate) ‑ whose largely imaginary crimes, sexual promiscuity (with the uncomfortable question this poses over any child’s paternity) and irresponsible drunkenness demonstrate the need for tight male control.

Supposing this were true, would it make Catullus any the less a poet? It would not. This effort on the scholar’s part reads like a shot at censorship, not conversation. Catullus’s most famous poem is his elegy for his brother, with lines beginning

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
Advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias
Ut te postremo donarem munera mortis
Et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem …
(Carried through many nations and over many seas,
 I arrive, brother, for these wretched funeral rites
so that I might present you with the last tribute of death
and speak in vain to silent ash ...)

I fell in love with it, as I thought, immediately when I read it in college aged eighteen. I recited it, drunk or sober, at every opportunity in the decades which followed. Without really knowing why ... It is a poem about loss, profound loss. Aged fifty, I discovered that loss had been inscribed upon my unconscious from the age of two. Catullus had been talking to my wound for thirty years without my knowing it.

SPQR legenda est. SPQR deserves to be read!

1/1/2016

Ronan Sheehan, a Dublin writer-solicitor, graduated from University College Dublin in English and Latin in the 1970s.

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