David Nightingale: Some Roman Writings

Nov 10, 2019

Pliny the Elder
Credit Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

When Julius Caesar marauded his way across Europe and England, with his legions and wooden boats, shields and swords and arrows, he later wrote much of these adventures down, either on papyrus scrolls or wax, but although the mighty Roman Empire was formed from barbaric warfare and killing, there were many Romans constructing bridges and aqueducts, poems and books. Much of this is still in evidence today – for example, the aqueducts feeding Rome, and the writings of the likes of Ovid and Catullus and Pliny.

Gaius Plinius Secundus, or Pliny the Elder, who was born in AD 23 and who lived to be 56, was author of many papyrus works on natural history. Here is a snippet he wrote about a pair of snakes (ref.1, p.80)

As they engender together, they clip and embrace, and so entangled they be and enwrapped one about the other, that a man who saw them, would think they were one serpent with two heads. In the very act of generation, the male thrusteth his head into the mouth of the female; which she (for the pleasure and delectation that she taketh) gnaweth and biteth off.

Young Catullus – Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 BC-54 BC) who died at only 30 and lived about the same time Julius Caesar was invading England, was from an aristocratic family, and had been sent to Rome for his education, where he fell deeply in love with a married woman called Clodia. We know that Clodia had at least five lovers in addition to Catullus – because he angrily mentions them by name. He expressed his love to Clodia in many poems – and here's a very short one (ibid p.176):

You before any,
even Zeus,
should I wed any
was her word –
a woman's word,
write it down!
In water.

In a more serious vein, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC - 43BC), also an approximate contemporary of Julius Caesar was a lawyer, orator, political theorist, and author of many works. Here's an excerpt he wrote concerning good and evil: (ibid p.287)

In every moral act...the one that has the widest range is the tie that binds man to man... a sort of alliance for the distribution of advantages. This natural human affection has its origin at our very birth, because our parents love us, and our whole family is linked by marriage and blood relationship. Gradually it creeps beyond the walls of the house... to friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and allied states, and finally to the whole compass of the human race... This close-linked alliance of man to man is called justice, and linked to it are piety, benevolence, liberality, kindness, courtesy and the like.

Some years later, Cicero, who had at the end of his life become an enemy of the general Marc Antony, was ordered killed. It is said that the then 63-year-old Cicero offered no resistance, baring his neck and throat, and saying to the executioner “There's nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.”

Finally, let's mention the Spanish-born Martial, or Marcus Valerius Martialis, born in AD 38, and widely acknowledged as the creator of the epigram. Martial moved to Rome as a young man where he soon made friends with influential people, enabling him to live in a garret on one of the seven hills, and write. He lived a rather Bohemian life, nevertheless managing later in life to buy a small estate outside Rome. He is known to have written over 1,500 epigrams, and we'll finish with this one: (ibid p.61)

You ask me how my farm can pay,
Since little it will bear.
It pays me thus – 'tis far away,
And you are never there.

1. “Roman Culture” ed. By Garry Wills, 1966; George Braziller, NY.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.