Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 12. "The Golden Ass," by Apuleius

The Roman Empire brought together a wide and diverse range of cultures, each with its own distinctive traditions. All were obliged to pay taxes and obey Roman law but, beyond this, each city had its own local government, and a significant degree of autonomy. Most educated Romans were bilingual in Latin and Greek but, in cultural terms, there was always a distinction between the western empire (including Italy, Iberia, Gaul and Britain), where Latin was the language of the streets, and the eastern empire (including Greece, Anatolia, the middle east and Egypt) where Greek was the vernacular language. A phrase-book has even been preserved (The Colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana), intended to help people from one part of the empire conduct business in another.

Apuleius lived during the reigns of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. He was a Roman citizen, but may never have visited Rome. He was born at Madauros (modern Mdaurusch, in Algeria), was educated at Carthage and Athens, and travelled extensively in Greece and North Africa.

The odeon (theatre) of Madauros. Photo: Samir Bouali (image is in the Public Domain).

Unlike The Satyricon of Petronius, Apuleius's Latin novel, The Golden Ass, has been preserved in its entirety. It takes the reader on a journey through the backwaters of Roman Greece but, perhaps more importantly, it takes us on a journey through the imagination of  a provincial Roman of the 2nd Century AD. Physically, this journey begins in Thessaly and ends in the Corinthian port of Cenchreae.



The Plain of Thessaly, where much of the novel is set. Photo: Evgeni Dinev (licensed under CCA).

The central character, Lucius (sometimes confused with the author), is driven by curiosity, and by his sexual appetites, into a number of tricky situations. He spies on a witch, and then steals some of her potion in the hope that he can transform himself, as she can, into a bird. The spell goes wrong and he is transformed, instead, into an ass. As an ass, he is much used and abused, until he finds redemption (and regains his human form) through devotion to the goddess Isis. Along the way, we learn a great deal about superstition and beliefs in witchcraft in the Roman Empire, about provincial life, and about the mystery cults that sprung up around the empire in the 2nd Century AD.

Mosaic with Bacchic scene. El-Jem Museum, Tunisia. Photo: Andrew Skudder (licensed under CCA).

" ... just as darkness fell, Photis led me silently on tiptoe, and instructed me to witness what was happening there through a chink in the door. Pamphile first divested herself of all her clothing. She then opened a small casket and took from it several boxes. She removed the lid from one of these, and extracted ointment from it. This she rubbed for some time between her hands, and then smeared it all over herself from the tips of her toes to the crown of her head ... Her nose became curved and hard, and her nails became talons. In this way Pamphile became an owl ... "

" ... the doors were violently forced open, and a band of robbers burst into the whole house ... All the robbers were equipped with swords and torches which brightened the darkness, for the flames and weapons gleamed like the rising sun. They then attacked and split open with heavy axes the treasure store, which was situated in the middle of the house, and was secured with bars of considerable strength ... "

"'Here I am, Lucius, roused by your prayers. I am the mother of the world of nature, mistress of all the elements, first born in this realm of time ... The whole world worships this single godhead under a variety of shapes and liturgies and titles ... But the peoples on whom the rising sun-god shines with his first rays ... the Egyptians who flourish with their time-honoured learning - worship me with the liturgy that is my own, and call me by my true name, which is queen Isis ..."

2nd Century Roman portrayal of the goddess Isis, Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Originally an Egyptian deity, the worship of Isis spread to all corners of the empire. There was even a temple in London dedicated to her. Photo: QuartierLatin1968 (licensed under GNU).

It is difficult to overstate the influence that The Golden Ass has had on later European traditions of literature and art. Printed Latin texts of the novel circulated widely in Europe from 1469, and a Spanish translation appeared in 1525. Some of the scenes in Don Quixote suggest that Cervantes was familiar with the text. The first English translation appeared in 1566, and its influence can be seen in several Shakespearean works, but most notably in A Midsummer Night's Dream, with the transformation of Bottom, like Lucius, into an ass. More generally, however, it is the foundation stone of European picaresque comedy, as surely as The Iliad and The Odyssey are the foundation stones of the European epic tradition.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.



Sunday, 27 July 2014

"Saint Lubbock's Days" - The Origins of the Bank Holiday

On the 19th May, 1871, at two o'clock in the morning, a Private Member's Bill completed its final stage in the House of Commons without opposition, having already been approved by the House of Lords. The Bank Holidays Bill, soon to be the Bank Holidays Act, had been promoted by Sir John Lubbock, the recently elected Member of Parliament for Maidstone.



Lubbock was better known as an archaeologist (his Prehistoric Times, published in 1865, which introduced the terms "Palaeolithic" and "Neolithic," would remain the standard English language text on European prehistory for several decades), as a biologist (a close neighbour and friend of Charles Darwin, he had published many scientific papers on the anatomy and metamorphosis of insects) and as a banker. Now he was seeking to establish a reputation as a parliamentarian. He could hardly have chosen a more popular platform than public holidays.

"The people may forget a great many deeds of glory and names of renown," ran a leader in the Daily Telegraph, "but they will never forget him who has given them a new and universal day of repose and recreation."

A commentator for the magazine, Bell's Life, was even more effusive:

"A statute holiday! A holiday by Act of Parliament! ... Sir John Lubbock, a name memorable in natural history ... has never vired a more sterling note across his counter than in the piece of paper which commands, in the name of Her Majesty, as the great cashier of her people's happiness, that they, the Queen's lieges, shall each and severally accept draughts of health and coin of pleasure unlimited, in exchange for toil and vitiated air."



Why is it, however, that these holidays are called "Bank Holidays?" Many people assume that it was because the act required banks to close, and that this forced other businesses to close as well. The truth is much more interesting. Lubbock would later comment on the subject:

"The Bank Holidays Bill met with no opposition and ... has been in operation for nearly a quarter of a century. Its easy passage was, I believe, partly the result of an accident. On the old holidays, bills of exchange are payable the day previously ... We felt that it would be difficult to the new holidays and, after some consideration, we determined to propose that they should be payable the day after instead of the day before. Hence we had to devise some special name for the new holidays, and we called them 'Bank Holidays.' If we had called our bill the 'General Holidays Bill' or the 'National Holidays Bill,' I doubt not that it would have been opposed; but the modest name of 'Bank Holiday' attracted no attention, and roused no opposition ... "

He was, I am sure, being deliberately disingenuous in describing this as an "accident." Before laying down his bill, Lubbock had secured the support of both the Liberal and Tory front benches. Opposition was likely to come from a handful of Tory back-benchers (then, as now, it was relatively easy for a small number of members to "talk out" a Private Member's Bill) who consistently objected to any legislation intended to improve the lot of working people. A bill laid down by a prominent banker, which appeared to have something to do with banking, did not attract their attention. They did not turn up for the debate, and were caught, literally, asleep on the job.

It was, however, a trick he could pull off only once: his later efforts to introduce legislation to protect ancient monuments, and to regulate working hours for shop assistants, were continually frustrated by the very men he had outwitted in the early hours of the 19th May, 1871.

More than twenty years on, some people were still calling for the abolition of Bank Holidays. In 1897, St John Hankin wrote:

"Four times in every year ... the people of England are turned loose from office, shop, and factory by act of parliament, and bidden to amuse themselves. Four times in every year do these unfortunate people set themselves obediently to look for amusement, and find it, usually, in the public house. Four times every year ... the various police magistrates dispose of more or less interminable lists of more or less serious offences arising out of the efforts of the state and Sir John Lubbock to secure rest and recreation for the people ... "

Convinced that Hankin's assertions were grounded in prejudice rather than evidence, Lubbock wrote to the President of the London Bench, Sir John Bridge, to check his facts. Bridge assured him that there had been "remarkably few charges." Bank Holidays were, by 1897, an established fixture of the British calendar, and their abolition would probably have provoked riots.

                  Paddington Station, August Bank Holiday 1904.

If Hankin's belief that Bank Holidays turned working people into a "drunken, cursing rabble" proved to be wide of the mark, then so, probably, did Lubbock's expectation that they would use them for the earnest "self-improvement" that he believed would be the basis for the continued evolution of the human mind and soul. Instead, thousands of families flocked to seaside resorts, drank in moderation and returned to their homes and workplaces, physically and emotionally refreshed.

Hastings Pier, August Bank Holiday, 1916. Festivities evidently continued despite the First World War.

Mark Patton's biography of Sir John Lubbock is published by Ashgate. His novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications. All can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 11 "Memoirs of Hadrian," by Marguerite Yourcenar

The period between 96 AD and 180 AD is seen by many as the high point of Roman civilisation. The Renaissance courtier and political theorist, Nicolo Machiavelli, singled out the reigns of "five good emperors," Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius as representative of this high point. The historian, Edward Gibbon, argued that, during this period, " ... the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power under the guidance of wisdom and virtue."

The Emperor Hadrian, bust in the Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen (image is in the Public Domain).

Hadrian was Emperor from 117 AD to 138 AD, and was significant, firstly, as the most widely travelled of Roman emperors, visiting virtually every part of the empire; and, secondly, as the emperor who put a stop to the ceaseless expansion of Roman rule (he withdrew Roman troops from Mesopotamia and Armenia, which had been annexed by his predecessor and adoptive father, Trajan), and turned his attention to the safeguarding of territories that were already Roman. Hadrian's wall, in northern England, is a visible reminder of this decision, as are the earthworks between the Rhine and the Danube, marking the empire's eastern frontier in Europe.



Fictionalised autobiographies of historical figures can almost be seen as a sub-genre of historical fiction (prominent examples include Robert Graves's I Claudius and Gore Vidal's Julian), but, to my mind Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian is the most remarkable of all. I have elsewhere described it as "the supreme triumph of historical viewpoint and voice in all of 20th Century fiction, and in any language," and I still don't think it has been surpassed.

It takes the form of an extended valedictory letter (and is, therefore, a novel without dialogue) written by Hadrian as he nears the end of his life, to his eventual successor, Marcus Aurelius. He reflects on his accession, his military victories, and his stewardship of the empire; meditates on the ecstasies and tragedies of his personal life; and provides insight into his character, philosophy and legacy.

"My dear Mark, Today I went to see my physician, Hermogenes, who has just returned to the villa from a rather long journey in Asia ... I took off my cloak and tunic and lay down on a couch. I spare you details which would be as disagreeable to you as to me ... the description of the body of a man who is growing old, and is about to die of a dropsical heart ... It is difficult to remin an emperor in presence of a physician, and difficult even to keep one's essential quality as a man ... This morning it occurred to me that my body, my faithful companion and friend, truer and better known to me than my own soul, may be, after all, a sly beast who will end by devouring his master ... "

Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli, near Rome, from which we must imagine the emperor dictating his "letter" to a slave. Photo: Camelia Boban (licensed under GNU).

"I crossed to the Isle of Britain in a ship which was flat as a barge. More than once the wind threw us back toward the coast to which we had sailed: that difficult passage afforded some wonderfully vacant hours. Gigantic clouds rose out of a heavy sea roiled by sand and incessantly stirred in its bed ... Everything enchanted me in that rainy land: the shreds of mist on the hillsides, the lakes consecrated to nymphs wilder than hours, the melancholy, grey-eyed inhabitants ..."

Hadrian's Wall. Photo: Michael Hanselmann (licensed under CCA).

"Some days after we reached Thebes I learned that the Empress and her suite had gone twice to the base of the colossal statue of Memnon, hoping to hear the mysterious sound emitted from the stone at dawn, a well-known phenomenon which all travellers wish to witness. The prodigy had not occurred but, with superstitious awe, they imagined that it would take place if I were present, so I agreed to accompany the women the next day ... They landed us near the Colossus. A strip of dull rose extended along the east, still another day was beginning. The mysterious sound occurred three times, resembling the snap of a breaking bowstring. The inexhaustible Julia Balbilla produced, on the spot, a whole series of poems ..."

The Colossi of Memnon, in Egypt. Julia Balbilla's Greek poems are carved as graffiti on the leg of one of the statue, and can still be seen today, along with other comments inscribed by members of Hadrian's party. Photo: Roweromaniak (licensed under CCA).

Yourcenar began work on the book in 1924, but did not complete it until 1951. Some books, she later remarked, should not be attempted until the writer has turned forty.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications. They can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 10. "The Satyricon," by Petronius

At the beginning of the 5th Century BC, Rome was just one of many city-states that had emerged in Italy under the influence of Greek and Phoenician colonists: it was insignificant by comparison with the Greek cities of Sicily, or even the Etruscan cities to the north. By 282 BC, however, Rome had, by conquest, achieved dominance over virtually the whole of the Italian peninsula.

"Can any man be so indifferent, or so idle," asked the Greek historian, Polybius, "that he would not want to know how, and under what kind of government, almost the whole of the inhabited world fell under the single rule of the Romans in less than fifty-three years?" He had in mind the period between 220 and 167 BC, during which time the Roman legions conquered most of Greece and the Iberian peninsula, as well as a large portion of north Africa. Dying in 118 BC, Polybius could not have known that Rome would go on to conquer France (58-50 BC), Egypt (30 BC) and much of Britain (43-85 AD). In 27 BC, a long and destructive civil war came to an end, leaving much of the known world in the hands of one man, whose heirs and successors, the Julio-Claudian emperors, would rule for almost a century.

The Emperor Augustus (reigned 27 BC - 14 AD), the first of the Julio-Claudians. Photo: Till Niermann (licensed under GNU).

The ancient forum of Rome, centre of the world's most powerful empire for almost five hundred years. Photo: Ygrek (licensed under CCA).

Most of the novels on my list for this series are relatively recent works of historical fiction, but there are just a few voices that speak to us directly from the remote past with a clarity that I cannot bring myself to ignore. Most scholars now agree that The Satyricon was written during the reign of Nero (54-68 AD), the last of the Julio-Claudian line. Its author, Petronius, was a fabulously wealthy aristocrat and courtier, who spent most of his life in Rome itself, but the stories which make up the surviving part of his novel (much of it has been lost) are set around the Bay of Naples, and many of his characters are freedmen and freedwomen (former slaves).



By the 1st Century AD, many slaves were freed by their owners as a reward for years of faithful servitude. Aristocratic Romans shunned commerce, but often profited from it indirectly by means of loans to their former slaves, some of whom achieved significant wealth in their own right.

The House of the Vettii, one of the largest and most richly furnished in Pompeii, was owned by two brothers, both of them freed slaves (image is in the Public Domain).

In an earlier blog-post, I explored The Satyricon as one of Europe's first novels, focussing on its most famous scene, a feast hosted by the millionaire freedman, Trimalchio. In modern terms, Petronius was something of a snob, derisive of the vulgar habits of the nouveau-riches. Trimalchio is a grotesque character: boastful of his wealth; a glutton and a bully; his table conversation punctuated by all-too-frank references to his own bodily functions. He and other characters are mocked by the author for their pretensions, superstitions, lechery and morbidity.

Trimalchio at the baths (image is in the Public Domain).

The plot of the novel is based on a comic re-working of Homer's Odyssey. The anti-hero, Encolpius, a former gladiator, travels around the Mediterranean (the lost opening chapter may have been set in Marseilles) in the company of a friend, Ascyltus, and a stolen slave-boy, Giton, with whom they are both in love. They have various encounters (many of them sexual) along the way; they steal, and are stolen from; they lie and deceive their way out of numerous tricky situations.

One of the characters they meet is Quartilla, a priestess of the ithyphallic god, Priapus. Encolpius and his friends unwittingly intrude on a ceremony conducted by the priestess, who later turns up at their lodging to remonstrate with them, accompanied by an entourage of male and female prostitutes:

"The maid produced two straps from her dress; she tied our feet together with one, and our hands with the other ... Our flow of chatter was now flagging, so Ascyltus piped up: 'Don't I merit a drink, then?' The maid ... clapped her hands and said: 'But I did put one by you ... Young Encolpius, have you drunk the entire potion yourself?'

'Good heavens! said Quartilla. 'Has Encolpius downed all the aphrodisiac?' "

Statue of Priapus, from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. Photo: Aaron Wolpert (licensed under CCA).

Encolpius, Ascyltus and Giton promise not to reveal the sacred mysteries they have witnessed, and are then obliged to attend a banquet hosted by Quartilla:

"There was a splendid hors d'oeuvre to start with, and we were also abundantly plied with Falernian wine. Then we were served with several main courses as well. But when we began to doze off, Quartilla said: 'What's this? Are you even contemplating sleep, when you are aware that a night's vigil is owed to the guiding spirit of Priapus?

 ... So the party recommenced ... in came a catamite, the most repulsive character imaginable, surely a worthy representative of that household. He wheezed as he snapped his fingers, and spouted some lines like this:

'Assemble here, you wanton sodomites,
Drive yourselves forward, let your feet take wing.
Full speed ahead. Come now with pliant thighs,
And mincing buttocks, fingers gesturing!
Come, tender youths, and you in later life,
And lads castrated by the Delian's knife!'"

I have left out the more explicit passages, not so much in the name of decency as in observance of the principle that one novelist ought not to spoil another's plot for the readers!

It is a tragedy that more of this novel has not survived, but what remains adds up to a riotous picaresque journey through the back-alleys of the Roman Empire, with rare and tantalising glimpses into the lives of people who were neither great, nor entirely good.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.




Thursday, 10 July 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 9 "A Spoke in the Wheel," by Amita Kanekar

Urban, literate civilisation emerged on the Indian subcontinent from around 3300 BC. Although the writing of this "Harappan" culture has not yet been deciphered, aspects of the religious iconography have led some scholars to speculate that the religion practised in the earliest Indian cities was, in some way, ancestral to Hinduism. For 3000 years, empires in India waxed and waned: new religious traditions emerged, Jainism and Buddhism prominent amongst them. Siddartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, travelled through Nepal and India at some time in the 6th or 5th Century BC (some sources place his birth in 563 BC, others in 483 BC).

Carved Buddha from Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, 3rd Century BC. Photo: Tevaprapus (reproduced with permission).

The balance of power within India was disturbed, in the 4th Century BC, by the incursion of Alexander the Great, and his Macedonian army. In the wake of this, a new empire arose in the north-east of India, its founder, Chandragupta Maurya, defeating Alexander's eastern successor, Seleucus I, in 322 BC, making himself the master of most of the subcontinent. The process of conquest was completed, in 261 BC, by Chandragupta's grandson, the Emperor Ashoka. His conquests, however, came at a high price: the Kalinga Wars left more than 100,000 people dead and, struck by remorse, the emperor embraced Buddhism and renounced violence (at least in theory).

Pillar erected by Ashoka at Wat U Mong, Thailand (he erected many such pillars across his empire. Photo: Roychoudhury (reproduced with permission).

The Edicts of Ashoka, inscribed on stone at Junagadh. Photo: Jadia Gaurang (reproduced with permission).



Upali, the main protagonist of A Spoke in the Wheel, is a (fictional) Buddhist monk, living in India in the 3rd Century BC, and working on a written biography of the Buddha (no such document exists - for reasons explained at the end of the book - the earliest surviving biographies of the Buddha date to the 2nd Century AD). Upali is also a refugee from the Kalinga War, with no reason to like or admire the Emperor Ashoka. The emperor, however, having embraced Buddhism, takes a keen interest in Upali's work, and summons him to a meeting:

"He was going to see the murderer of Kalinga. In the first months after the war, he used to imagine himself striding up to the Magadhe-Raja and slaying him, stabbing a dagger through the royal chest, cutting off the royal head, in revenge for the sorrow inflicted on all the harmless little hamlets Upali had known ... A civilisation had been destroyed, consciously and cold-bloodedly. And for what? Self-aggrandisement. Megalomania. Greed. All typical of the Mauryas and Magadh."

The Stupa of Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, where Upali first meets the Emperor Ashoka (image is in the Public Domain).

The monastic community to which Upali belongs is torn between those who see the emperor's embrace of Buddhism as an opportunity to carry forward their beliefs; and others who fear that those beliefs cannot possibly remain intact if monks make common cause with those who have won power by the sword. When Upali finally comes face to face with Ashoka, he finds it difficult to hate the man, but equally difficult to believe that the emperor's understanding of Buddhism is truly the same as his own.

In the novel, the story of Upali's journey is interwoven with extracts from his uncompleted biography of the Buddha. He does not have much to go on: no writings, no eye-witness accounts (he is writing almost three hundred years after the Buddha's death), only stories handed down orally from one generation to the next (which often conflict with one another), and suttas (formulaic chants, believed to embody the teachings of the Buddha). At one point he is challenged by another monk:

"One Nagarjuna Upagupta, of Mathura, now joined in. 'I was very impressed, Thera, with the details. How do you know so much about Shakya life - politics, technology, military manners, and so on?'

Upali was rather relieved by the change of focus. 'Mostly from the suttas themselves. But a little, I suppose, from my own experience ... '"

Upali is, in modern terms, writing historical fiction, and his characterisation of the Buddha owes much to his own experience of, and outlook on, the world. He is concerned with how to live in the world, rather than with what lies beyond it; with morality rather than metaphysics. Both Upali and his imagined Buddha reject the formulaic religions of their times: with their blood sacrifices; their obsession with caste; and their focus on the supernatural. Both preach non-violence, kindness and tolerance, and strive to live up to these teachings in their own lives.  

"Others insisted on believing in previous births, later births, and in various fates after death, but the Buddha remonstrated against this, too ... But sometimes he wearied of it all, especially when such ideas came from his closest companions ... 'It isn't strange, Ananda, that one person should die here, another there, and so on. But when each does so, that you should come to me to enquire about his or her future - that is really amazing!"

A Spoke in the Wheel is a novel about the early history of Buddhism, but it is also a book about the transition from oral to written tradition, and about the encounter between spirituality and temporal power. Reading it is an immersive experience in a culture that will be profoundly unfamiliar to many in the English-speaking world. Some of the characters have multiple names and titles; concepts are introduced without necessarily being explained; the reader encounters this culture as we might explore a foreign land when travelling independently, rather than on a tourist coach with a guide continually speaking over the real sounds of the place itself. That, of course, is what makes it a truly great read!

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat publications. They can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Friday, 4 July 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 8. "Lavinia," by Ursula K. Le Guin

From the mid 8th Century BC, the Greeks and Phoenicians began establishing colonies in the central and western Mediterranean. The Phoenicians colonised much of north Africa, along with parts of Spain and Sardinia, whilst much of southern Italy became known as "Magna Graecia." Trade was part of the motivation for this expansion, and many local Italian, African and Spanish communities responded with enthusiasm.

Greek and Phoenician colonies in the Mediterranean (image is in the Public Domain).

As well as imported goods, the colonists brought with them knowledge of new technologies, including the use of iron; new mythologies and religious beliefs; and written language, which were variously adopted and adapted by indigenous communities. New literate civilisations emerged around the Mediterranean coast: the Etruscans; the Carthaginians; the Iberians. By comparison with these, the civilisation of Latium, the area around Rome, is barely visible in the archaeological record, yet it would go on, in time, to conquer much of the known world.

Etruscan fresco from a tomb at Tarquinia. The scene looks like a Greek symposium, and is probably inspired by images on Greek vases, but look closer, and there are important differences: women, for example, are participating alongside men, which was never the case in Greek symposia. Photo: Waugsberg (licensed under GNU).

Later generations of Romans would go on to insist that their civilisation was founded by Trojan refugees, but there is a problem here, which the Romans themselves understood, at least in part: the earliest historical and archaeological evidence for sustained contact between Italy and the eastern Mediterranean dates to the 8th Century BC; the Trojan War, if it happened at all, is likely to have been in the 12th Century BC.

Coin minted by Julius Caesar, featuring, on one side, an image of the goddess, Venus (his supposed divine ancestress) and, on the other, Aeneas escaping from Troy with his father, Anchises, on his back. Photo: louisonze (reproduced with permission).

Ursula K. Le Guin gets around this problem by following Virgil's Aeneid, just as Margaret Atwood took Homer's Odyssey as the basis for her Penelopiad. Le Guin consciously sets her novel in " ... Virgil's semi-mythological, non-historical landscape, defined by a poet, not by the patient uncertainties of archaeologists." Like Atwood, she builds her story around a character who plays only a minor role in the poem itself (Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus, who marries Aeneas and bears him the son whose descendants will go on to found Rome), but there the similarity ends, for whilst Atwood brings her characters into our world, Le Guin is determined to immerse us in the world of her characters.



Her Lavinia talks directly, both to the poet who will later immortalise her (their spirits meet in a sacred grove), and to us. There is a degree of unreliable narration involved: Lavinia tells Virgil that he has got some of the details wrong, but he is, by this stage, already dying, and is too ill to revise his manuscript. He, in turn, tells her some uncomfortable truths about her future, which she can do nothing to change.

"I went to the salt-beds by the mouth of the river, in the May of my nineteenth year, to get salt for the sacred meal ... we slept under the seawind ... I woke at the first beginning of light ... on the dim sea I saw ships - a line of great, black ships, coming up from the south and wheeling and heading in to the river mouth. On each side of each ship a long rank of oars lifted and beat like the beat of wings in the twilight ... The faces of the oarsmen were shadowed but a man stood up against the sky on the high stern of the ship, gazing ahead. His face is stern yet unguarded; he is looking ahead into the darkness, praying. I know who he is."

Sculpted relief of Aeneas and his son, Ascanius, setting arriving in Latium. Photo: Jastrow (image is in the Public Domain).

"No one was at the sacred place, but there had been recent sacrifices; fresh fleeces lay on the ground and a stack of unburned wood by the altar. I scattered salted meal on the altar and all about the enclosure and wished I could light a little fire, but I had brought none ... I became aware that a figure was standing within the enclosure, on the other side of the altar. For a moment I thought it was a tree. Then I saw it was a man. I sat up and said, 'Be welcome here.'"

Le Guin is better known as an author of fantasy and science fiction novels, and the world she creates is a largely fictive one, woven together from threads of Virgil's poetry, the archaeology of the 8th - 5th Centuries BC in Italy, and subsequent Roman traditions; but it is a believable world. The gods and goddesses do not intervene directly in the affairs of men, as they do in The Aeneid. It is a world that would have been familiar to any Roman, yet revealed, as no Roman would have thought to reveal it, from the perspective of a woman.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased in e-book or paperback format from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.