Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Seneca, letter 12: and suddenly you are old...

Last weekend I had my traditional autumn walking weekend with 3 friends. Like last year, the weather was glorious for the time of the year. Also like last year we noticed that we are getting older: earlier to bed and less boozing. One of us posted a picture on facebook with me making coffee in the morning and remarked: `with the climbing of years earlier to bed and earlier up.’
Seneca would not have been Seneca if he had not said something about old age in his letters to Lucilius. And indeed, he did! I immediately confess that I haven’t read all his letters or forgot about what I have read, but typing `Seneca old age’ gave me letter 12. In the opening parts of this letter he  describes a scene in which he after a long time is coming to one of his villas. Looking around he sees that things are rather old: the villa needs repair; the trees are no longer fresh and so on. And then he realizes that the villa has flourished under him and that he has planted the trees with his own hands….
Of course at the end he reassures Lucilius that men (and women) should not constrain themselves by fear of old age and death.
After last years’ walking weekend I wrote about the same topic with a post on Cicero’s De Senectute, and recently I posted something about the same book, so it may appear that it worries me. Well sixty is nowadays the new forty, so I am now 36 – no age to be troubled about such trivial things as old age. You girls in your twenties and thirties: here I come!

Seneca Epistulae Morales 12 1-3


[1] Quocumque me verti, argumenta senectutis meae video. Veneram in suburbanum meum et querebar de impensis aedificii dilabentis. Ait vilicus mihi non esse neglegentiae suae vitium, omnia se facere, sed villam veterem esse. Haec villa inter manus meas crevit: quid mihi futurum est, si tam putria sunt aetatis meae saxa? [2] Iratus illi, proximam occasionem stomachandi arripio. 'Apparet' inquam 'has platanos neglegi: nullas habent frondes. Quam nodosi sunt et retorridi rami, quam tristes et squalidi trunci! Hoc non accideret si quis has circumfoderet, si irrigaret.' Iurat per genium meum se omnia facere, in nulla re cessare curam suam, sed illas vetulas esse. Quod intra nos sit, ego illas posueram, ego illarum primum videram folium. [3] Conversus ad ianuam 'quis est iste?' inquam 'iste decrepitus et merito ad ostium admotus? foras enim spectat. Unde istunc nanctus es ? quid te delectavit alienum mortuum tollere?' At ille 'non cognoscis me?' inquit: 'ego sum Felicio, cui solebas sigillaria afferre; ego sum Philositi vilici filius, deliciolum tuum'. 'Perfecte' inquam 'iste delirat: pupulus etiam delicium meum factus est? Prorsus potest fieri: dentes illi cum maxime cadunt.'

quocumque: wherever
verto verti vertum: to turn
suburbanum: a villa near the city
queror questus sum: to complain
impensa: cost (The penny-pincher! Seneca was the richest man in his days! Ah yes, this is an imagined situation.)
dilabor dilapsus sum: to fall asunder
vilicus: steward
cresco crevi cretum: to grow, prosper
puter putris: rotten
occasionem arripio: to seize the opportunity
stomachor stomachatus sum: to be angry, irritated
platanus (f!): platane tree
frons frondis (f.): foliage
nodosus: full of knots
retorridus: parched, dried up
squalidus: stiff, rough
circumfodio: to dig around
genius: guardian deity
cesso: to cease
vetulus: somewhat old
illas posueram: I planted them   
ianua: door
decrepitus: very old
'quis est iste?:  who is that man? (It was custom to place the corps on a bier with his face towards the door (ad ostium), so that it faced outward (foras spectat).
nanciscor nanctus sum: to obtain, stumble on
alienum mortuum tollere: to put a corps from elsewhere on a bier
sigillaria: puppets made of clay
deliciolum: favourite little boy (diminutive of delicium)
perfecte delirat: he is completely mad
pupulus: little boy (predicate to delicium. Has my favourite little slave become a young boy again? This is explained in the next sentence: like small children lose their teeth, so this grown up man is losing his teeth due to old age.)
prorsus: certainly

Translation by Richard M. Gummere (1917)

1. Wherever I turn, I see evidences of my advancing years. I visited lately my country-place, and protested against the money which was spent on the tumble-down building. My bailiff maintained that the flaws were not due to his own carelessness; "he was doing everything possible, but the house was old." And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling? 2. I was angry, and I embraced the first opportunity to vent my spleen in the bailiff's presence. "It is clear," I cried, "that these plane-trees are neglected; they have no leaves. Their branches are so gnarled and shrivelled; the boles are so rough and unkempt! This would not happen, if someone loosened the earth at their feet, and watered them." The bailiff swore by my protecting deity that "he was doing everything possible, and never relaxed his efforts, but those trees were old." Between you and me, I had planted those trees myself, I had seen them in their first leaf. 3. Then I turned to the door and asked: "Who is that broken-down dotard? You have done well to place him at the entrance; for he is outward bound. Where did you get him? What pleasure did it give you to take up for burial some other man's dead?" But the slave said: "Don't you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images. My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave." "The man is clean crazy," I remarked. "Has my pet slave become a little boy again? But it is quite possible; his teeth are just dropping out."

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Lactantius: the glory of the Phoenix.

De Ave Phoenice is a poem of 170 lines in which the Phoenix is described. The Phoenix is a mythical bird who after a certain time dies in fire and arises out of its ashes again.  The poem is generally attributed to Lactantius (c. 240 – c. 320), a Christian apologist, but what has puzzled scholars is that there are no overt references to Christianity. Sure, the Phoenix was seen sometimes as a symbol for Christ and Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD) considered it even as the proof for the possibility of resurrection, but no such suggestions are made in the poem. Lactantius did not come from a Christian family, but was converted in later life, after having been professor of rhetorica. It could be that this poem was his first writing as a Christian. It could also be that this poem was written for an occasion of which the details are lost, leaving us with a poem without context. But the very fact that little is known, has given rise to wide and wild speculations. I happen to read this poem now with a friend of mine and she found on internet interpretations as: " Female initiation rites and early Christian and pagan theories about menstruation, conception and birth" and: `Image of the paradisiacal garden as a symbol for Mary (and the church) and Mary herself, the solitary one in wait for the coming of the Lord – the Phoenix’ song and bliss at its flight to meet the sun,  as analogue to the Annunciation (where Mary accepts the angel’s invitation to do Gods will).  Thus where the sun knocks at the threshold of the shining gates, is a reference to the descent of the Logos into the womb of Mary.’ Hear, hear! Well, I won’t say that it is impossible, but sometimes scholars are very eager to read their own ideas into texts.
The De Ave Phoenice is also interesting for students of Old English, as it is the basis of an Old English poem with the same name. The first part is a translation and the second part a Christian meditation upon this text.
The poem starts with a description of a kind of paradise, far in the East, near the rising of the sun and after this the Phoenix is introduced:

Lactantius, De Ave Phoenice 31-50

hoc nemus, hos lucos avis incolit unica phoenix
     unica sed vivit morte refecta sua
paret et obsequitur Phoebo memoranda satelles
     hoc natura parens munus habere dedit.
lutea cum primum surgens aurora rubescit
     cum primum rosea sidera luce fugat.
ter quater illa pia immergit corpus in undas
     ter quater e vivo gurgite libat aquam
tollitur ac summo consedit in arboris altae
     vertice, quae totum despicit una nemus
et conversa novos Phoebi nascentis ad ortus
     expectat radios et iubar exoriens
atque ubi sol pepulit fulgentis lumina portae
     et primum emicuit luminis aura levis
incipit illa sacri modulamina fundere cantus
     et mira lucem voce ciere novam.
quam nec aedoniae voces nec tibia possit
     musica cyrrhaeis assimilare modis
sed neque olor moriens imitare nosse putatur
     nec cylleneae fila canora lyrae.

hoc nemus hos lucos: i.e. the wood and sacred groves in the mythical land where the Phoenix lives.
morte refecta sua:  renewed from her own death
Phoebus: the sun
satelles, satellitis ( f. and m.): servant, attendant
hoc munus habere dedit:  gave (her) this for having as duty
luteus: saffron, golden
gurgis gurgitis (m.): steam, whirlpool
tollitur: reflexive
libo: to sip
vertex verticis (m.): top
quae (arbor)
iubar iubaris (m.): radiance, brightness
pello pepuli pulsum: to strike knock
lumina portae: the threshold of garden where the phoenix lives
emico emicui emicatum: to break forth
sacri modulamina fundere cantus: to spread out the melody of a sacred song
cieo civi citum: to cause to go, stir
aedoniae voces: the voices of nightingales (the adjective aedonius is only found twice in Latin
tibia: flute
musica: adjective to tibia
cyrrhaeis modis: Cyrrha was a town in Phocis associated with Apollo (=  Phoebus). so it means `tunes associated with the sun’.
olor oloris (m.): swan (the swan, not a bird renown for its beautiful singing, was believed to sing beautifully when dying.)
cylleneae lyrae: Cyllena was a mountain in the north –east of Arcadia (I think this is the only place in Latin literature where this mountain is associated with a lyre .)
fila canora: harmonious strings

Translation by J.W. Duff and A.M. Duff (1934)

In this grove, in these woods, dwells the peerless
bird,the Phoenix, peerless, since she lives renewed
by her own death. An acolyte worthy of record,
she yields obedience and homage to Phoebus : such
the duty that parent Nature assigned to her for observ-
ance. Soon as saffron Aurora reddens at her rising,
soon as she routs the stars with rosy light, thrice
and again that bird plunges her body into the kindly
waves, thrice and again sips water from the living
flood. Soaring she settles on the topmost height of
a lofty tree which alone commands the whole of the
grove, and, turning towards the fresh rising of
Phoebus at his birth, awaits the emergence of his
radiant beam. And when the Sun has struck the
threshold of the gleaming portal and the light shaft
of his first radiance has flashed out, she begins to
pour forth notes of hallowed minstrelsy and to sum-
mon the new day in a marvellous key which neither
tune of nightingale nor musical pipe could rival in
Cirrhean  modes ; nay, let not the dying swan be
thought capable of imitating it, nor yet the tuneful
strings of Cyllcnean  lyre.


Phoenix in the flames (Aberdeen bestiary 12th century.)