Three from the Ancients.

I'm so behind with my book blogging at present I've got at least eleven books to say a few words on, so to get through it a bit quicker this post is going to be on three works from the 1st Century B.C. and 1st Century A.D. that I enjoyed but don't seem to have a great deal to say on! They are Cicero's On the Good Life, Pliny the Younger's Letters, and Ovid's Cures for Love.

On the Good Life is a selection of essays written by Cicero. It contains:
  1. Discussions at Tusculum (from Tusculanae Disputationes, or Tusculan Disputations, 45 B.C.)
  2. On Duties II (from De Officiis or On Obligations, 44 B.C.)
  3. Laelius: On Friendship (from De Amicitia, or On Friendship, 44 B.C.)
  4. On the Orator (De Oratore, 55 B.C.)
  5. The Dream of Scipio (from De re publica or Republic, 54 - 51 B.C.).
Of the five I'd already read two, so I focused on the remainder: Discussions at TusculumLaelius: On Friendship, and On the Orator

The Discussions at Tusculum is from the fifth section of the book in which Cicero asks whether virtue alone be sufficient for a happy life having explored other components of a happy life in the previous chapter. It was written in the final year of Julius Caesar's reign and is addressed to Cicero's friend and Caesar's murderer - Brutus. Being as he had much in common with the Stoics it's of no surprise that ultimately, everything else aside, comfort, material possessions, wealth and what not, he does conclude that it is virtue that is a key to happiness. In On Friendship he writes on the nature of friendship as told by the speaker, Laelius, who tells of his close friend with the recently deceased Scipio Aemilianus. True friends and false friends is discussed, and links between neighbourliness and friendship is explored. Virtue, again, is key with Laelius arguing that true friendship can only exist between good people. Finally in On the Orator (which is Part I of De Oratore) Cicero discusses the art of rhetoric (and one can see the influence of the Greeks on this, particularly Aristotle). It is by its nature rather less interesting to me, though one I may revisit (if only because it irritates me that I was unable to get to grips with it!).

After Cicero I read Pliny the Younger for the first time. Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus worked in law in the 1st Century B.C. to the 1st Century A.D. He wrote a series of letters (known as the Epistulae) that he intended for publication. There is a wealth of different topics that Pliny wrote about to his friends throughout much of his life and they give a unique account of Roman life. Some are very informative, such as his retrospective account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (79 A.D.) and on the treatment of Christians at the time. Other letters are very personal, for example Pliny simply checking in with a friend expressing his concern that he hadn't heard from him in a while, and there's a charming letter to his wife too:
You cannot believe how much I miss you. I love you so much, and we are not used to separations. So I stay awake most of the night thinking of you, and by day I find my feet carrying me (a true word, carrying) to your room at the times I usually visited you; then find it empty I depart, as sick and sorrowful as a lover locked out. The only time I am free of this misery is when I am in court and wearing myself out with my friends' lawsuits. You can judge then what a life I am leading, when I find my rest in work and distraction in troubles and anxiety.
All in all I loved these Letters very much and I felt a certain privilege reading them. For certain I'll re-read them (and go into more depth - as I say today, this week in fact, time is against me) but they are an absolute pleasure to read and I recommend them very highly, not just to those who enjoy the Ancient period but to all readers.

Finally on the list, Ovid's Cures for Love (Remedia Amoris), written as a companion piece to his early work The Art of Love (Ars amatoria). It begins,
Love, having read the name and title on this book,
said: ‘It’s war, you declare against me, I see, it’s war’.
‘Cupid, don’t condemn your poet for a crime, who has so often
raised the standard, you trusted him with, under your command.
I’m not Diomede, by whom your mother was wounded,
she, carried back to the clear heavens on Mars’s steeds.
Other young men often grow cool: I’ve always loved,
and if you ask me now, too, what I do, I love.
Indeed I’ve taught, as well, by what art you can be won,
and what was passion before, is now reason.
Sweet Boy, I’ve not betrayed you or my art,
and this new Muse unravels no prior work.
Let him rejoice in happiness, any eager man who loves
and delights in love: let him sail with the wind.
But any man who suffers badly from the power of a worthless girl,
shouldn’t die, if he understands the help that’s in my art.
Why should any lover hang from a high beam,
a sad weight, with a knotted rope round his neck?
Why should anyone stab himself with cold steel?
Lover of Peace, you earn dislike for such hateful death.
Let him who’ll die of wretched passion unless he quits it,
quit it: and you’ll be the cause of no one’s funeral.
In true Ovid form his advice ranges from the humorous to the risque as he counsels the brokenhearted. Some advice is pretty traditional: keep busy, try new things, others rather of its time - don't try magic! Typically of Ovid its a very energetic work and I enjoyed it, though I'm not entirely sure I'd revisit it. For me, the only Ovid is Metamorphoses, but that's not to say it's not worth reading his other works because of course it is.

And a final note: that Ovid was my 27th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The Phoenician Women by Seneca the Younger.


  1. intriguing stuff... i've been thinking about trying Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" again; he's about the last scholar to actually know most of what there was to know in the world; since then, there's been such expansion of knowledge that even one computer can't know it all... i've sort of made a resolve to read it before croaking, but i don't know if i'll make it or not...

    1. I want to read that too - was actually looking for a decent copy online a few days ago (found one on the Penguin website). Going to try and get it fairly soon I hope :)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.