Monday, 16 January 2017

Ancient Voices in a Modern World: Marcus Tullius Cicero

There are a few voices from the ancient world that still reverberate in our own times, and few more so than that of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC). Cicero lived, as arguably we do today, in "interesting times" (a phrase used by the British statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, and again by his son, Austen, in 1936, to describe the anxieties of an age in which uncertainty appears to be the only certainty: the "Chinese curse" on which it is supposedly based is almost certainly a myth). In Cicero's case, he was living through the final years of the Roman Republic, fearful of the onset of a tyranny that he would not, in the end, live to see: for, whilst the historian (or, for that matter, the historical novelist) looks back on past uncertainties with the luxury and benefits of hindsight; those who live through such an age can only guess at where the winds of fortune might blow them.

Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: Jose Luiz (licensed under CCA).

Many of us in Europe, the United States, and the Commonwealth, have grown up with the idea that we live in "democracies," and associate the birth of democracy not with Rome, but with Athens. That is certainly where the word (meaning government by the people) has its origins, but a time-traveler from ancient Greece or Rome would not recognise our systems of governance as "democratic."

The "golden age" of democratic Athens had long since ended when Cicero, as a young man, visited the city to study philosophy, politics and rhetoric. This "golden age" had, arguably, lasted for less than a century (480-404 BC), and the Athenian model of democracy was widely seen as a failed political experiment. Whilst in Athens, Cicero read Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics, both of which identify democracy as a dysfunctional form of government. He also read the works of the later Greek historian, Polybius (200-118 BC), who argued that, in practice, most political systems of his day (he was thinking, in particular, of the Roman system, which he admired) combined elements of different theoretical systems, such as democracy, monarchy and aristocracy.

Cicero returned to Rome intent on putting into practice what he had learned. The "aristocratic" element of the Roman constitution was represented by the Senate, but, as he was not an aristocrat by birth, he did not have an automatic seat there.

The Curia Julia in the Forum of Rome, one of several buildings in which the Senate meetings were held. Photo: Giovanni Dall' Orto (reproduced with permission).

The rather limited "democratic" element was represented by public assemblies, and by opportunities for a few men to gain admittance to the Senate by election, as Cicero did.

A Roman elector casting his vote, denarius of C. Cassius Longinus, 63 BC. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group (licensed under GNU).

The "monarchical" element was represented by the Consuls, elected, in each case, just for one year, with two serving at any one time, so that they could act as checks and balances on one another. Cicero served as Consul in 63 BC. This was the highest office under the Roman Republic, the equivalent of a modern presidency.

A Roman Consul, accompanied by Lictors. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group (licensed under GNU).

The Rome of Cicero's day was deeply divided along lines of wealth. On the one hand, aristocratic military commanders such as Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Pompey the Great, returned from their foreign campaigns with almost unimaginable wealth in plunder and slaves: their veterans typically had far greater loyalty to them than to the Roman state, and organised themselves into competing mobs in support of the political ambitions of their respective commanders. On the other hand, many ordinary Romans lived in desperate poverty. With the crumbs from their own tables, and promises (however empty) of more to follow, Populares, such as Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, sought to recruit the poor to their cause.

Marcus Licinius Crassus, believed to have been one of the richest men ever to have lived. A property speculator, and a political ally of Julius Caesar, he played a key role in putting down the slave rebellion of Spartacus. Photo: The Louvre (image is in the Public Domain).
Propaganda cups handed out by political candidates to potential voters with gifts of food or drink. One is inscribed with the name of Cato (a representative of the Optimate faction), the other with the name of Catiline (one of the Populares). Photo: Salvatore Falco (licensed under CCA).

Cicero, in company with Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, was no democrat. He feared the mobs, and the power of brute force that they might lend to a potential tyrant. What he was, above all, was an advocate of constitutional government; of the idea that the political process (as defined by precedent - the Roman Republic did not have a written constitution) was at least as important as political outcomes. Through his written treatises, De Re Publica ("On the Commonwealth" - from which we take our word "Republic"), and De Offiiis ("On Duties"), this idea has arguably had more influence on modern systems of government than the direct democracy of Athens in the Fifth Century BC. This idea, however, carries its own dilemmas, as Cicero learned to his cost.

Cicero's De Officiis was the second book to be printed in Europe, after the Gutenberg Bible. This is King Henry VIII's personal annotated copy, printed around 1500. Photo: Folger Shakespeare Library (licensed under CCA).

When, during the course of his Consulship, he had to face down an attempted coup d'etat, led by a Senator named Catiline, he acted swiftly to execute the conspirators, without the formality of a trial. Although he had the support of the Senate in doing so, he must, as an experienced lawyer as well as a politician, have known that he was acting unconstitutionally, and he was subsequently exiled. Neither his books, nor those of Plato, Aristotle or Polybius, provide a satisfactory answer to the question as to when, and under what circumstances, a constitutional ruler may be justified in acting outside the constitution. Catiline had already violated the constitution: both by assembling an illegal army, and camping it outside Rome; and by entering secret negotiations with a foreign power (the Gaulish Allobroges tribe), which Cicero learned of through his network of spies.

On his return from exile, Cicero cautiously welcomed the assassination of Julius Caesar, but this "liberation" did not follow the course he might have wished to see. Power was seized by one faction after another, each of them backed by the sort of armed force he had always feared. He himself was seized by forces loyal to Mark Antony, and his head and hands (the instruments of his oratory) displayed on the Rostra (speakers' platform) from which he had denounced Catiline to the Roman people.

The Rostra of the Roman Forum. Photo: O. Mustafin (licensed under CCA).

Yet when, in the modern context, we think about Mark Antony, we almost inevitably remember the fictional speeches scripted for him by Shakespeare, many centuries after his death, whereas, in Cicero's case, it is his own words that echo down to us through the centuries:

"Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludat? Quem ad finem, sese effrenata iactabit audacia?"

"When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?"

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Wards of Old London: Fleet Street - Wordsmiths, Pubs, and an Unexpected Ghost

A visitor to London, exploring the ward of Farringdon Without, and having walked along Holborn and High Holborn, can, from Holborn Circus, follow a series of small roads (Saint Andrew Street, Shoe Lane, Little New Street, New Hardings, Pemberton Row) southward to Gough Square. A statue of a cat named Hodge identifies one of the houses in the square as the one-time home of Hodge's owner, the Eighteenth Century lexicographer and literary critic, Dr Samuel Johnson.

Dr Johnson's house, in Gough Square. Photo: Jim Linwood (licensed under CCA).

Johnson lived here from 1748 to 1759, and it was here that he completed his famous Dictionary of the English Language (1755). It was not, as has sometimes been claimed, the first English dictionary, but it was the best of the early ones, and provided the model for most subsequent dictionaries. Johnson's house is also one of the best-preserved examples of a Georgian town-house that is open to visitors in London.

Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1775 - image is in the Public Domain). 

Johnson was an immensely sociable man, whose generosity towards friends and literary associates frequently extended well beyond his own, rather limited, financial means. A widower from 1752, and one without children, many of these friends and associates lodged with him, and helped him in the compilation of the dictionary, working word by word through key texts, beginning with the King James Bible, and the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. His intellectual circle included women as well as men, and even a former slave, Francis Barber, whom he had educated himself.

Francis Barber, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (image is in the Public Domain).

One thing that I noticed, on visiting the house last year, was the tiny proportions of the basement kitchen. A member of staff overheard me commenting on this to my sister, who was accompanying me. He smiled, explaining that this was a frequent topic of conversation among his colleagues: "we have come to the conclusion that beyond the toasting of muffins and crumpets, very little cooking actually happened here." Johnson, and his many house-guests and literary collaborators, must either have dined out in some of the many pubs and chop-houses in the surrounding streets, or brought food in from such establishments. Such, presumably, were the habits of many literate, middle class Londoners at the time.

Walking south from Gough Square, along Hind Court, one emerges into Fleet Street. Among the first pubs that one encounters is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which in its current form, dates to the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666, but which, as an establishment, is much older. It has often been mentioned in association with Johnson, and, although there is no direct evidence that he actually frequented it, it does seem to me more likely than not. What is more certain is that Charles Dickens refers to the pub in A Tale of Two Cities, as does Anthony Trollope in Ralph the Heir. Other literary figures who have held court there include P.G. Wodehouse and W.B. Yeats.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Photo: Banjobacon (licensed under CCA).

There is a ghost story associated with the pub, concerning a midwife, whose spirit was unable to rest on account of her murder of new-born children that she had delivered. This story was the subject of a Seventeenth Century broadsheet ballad, a recording of which can be heard here. The children's bones were said to be at the pub in 1680, but the current staff were unable to produce them for my sister and I, nor had they seen or heard anything of the ghost.

The printed broadsheet of the Ballad of the Midwive's Ghost (1680 - image is in the Public Domain).

Fleet Street itself runs west from Ludgate towards The Strand in Westminster, crossing the (now subterranean) River Fleet. To the south, in the Medieval and Early Modern eras, lay the Bridewell, a palace in the early years of Henry VIII's reign, and subsequently an orphanage and prison; Whitefriars, a Carmelite priory; and the Temple, the London headquarters of the crusading Knights Templar, until the dissolution of the order in 1312. To the north of Fleet Street lay the sumptuous townhouses of provincial prelates, including the Bishops of Salisbury and Saint David's.

The Civil Parishes of the City of London in 1870, including those (lower left, showing the positions of the Bridewell, Whitefriars and the Temple) bordering Fleet Street. Image: Doc77can (licensed under CCA).
Fleet Street is today more famous for journalism (although few journalists actually work there now), going back to 1500, when Wynkyn de Worde set up one of England's first printing workshops near Shoe Lane. The newspaper industry was given a very considerable boost by the repeal of the Newspaper Tax in 1855, and of Paper Duty in 1858, and flourished in Fleet Street until the final quarter of the Twentieth Century.

Fleet Street in 1890, looking east towards Saint Paul's Cathedral. Photo: James Valentine (image is in the Public Domain).
The former Daily Telegraph building, now the London headquarters of Goldman Sachs. Photo: N.Chadwick (licensed under CCA).

This stroll along Fleet Street brings us to the end of our exploration of the intramural and extramural wards of the City of London, which I had thought to complete in 2016, but didn't quite succeed. There is, of course, far more to "London," as we understand it today, than simply The City, and I shall be launching a new series of posts in the coming weeks.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: January

There has been a good deal of doom and gloom around in the closing months of 2016, so I wanted to start the New Year with something more uplifting. Our Medieval ancestors suffered through wars, famines and plagues, and even the wealthiest among them could not have imagined some of the comforts that most of us take for granted today; yet they produced a great quantity of art that can still speak to us, and lift our spirits in the modern world. The passage of the seasons is a common theme in Medieval art; so, over the coming year, I shall be looking at each month in turn.

The Labours of the Months: manuscript of c818 AD (image is in the Public Domain).

The only art that most people in the Middle Ages would have seen was in churches, and the theme of this art was, of course, religious. The year itself was structured around the great feasts and solemnities of the Church: both those which are familiar to us, such as Christmas and Easter; and those that have become more obscure with the passage of time, such as Michaelmas and Candlemas.

Books were expensive, since they had to be copied by hand, on vellum (animal skin), and few individuals owned them. In the earlier Middle Ages, most literate people were either priests, monks, or nuns, and few books circulated outside the libraries of the great cathedrals and monasteries. Through their activities as copyists, Benedictine monks and nuns, in particular, ensured the survival, not only of Christian texts, but also of some of the most important literature of Classical antiquity.

From the Fourteenth Century, however, commercial workshops emerged, especially in Flanders and the Netherlands, producing books, sometimes elaborately decorated, for the households of the wealthy. Both men and women worked in these ateliers, the skills being passed from father to daughter, as well as from father to son.

The Arnhem Book of Hours, 1465-85, National Library of the Netherlands (image is in the Public Domain). Unusually, the language here is Dutch, rather than Latin.

"Books of Hours," combining the functions of a calendar, diary and prayer-book, were especially popular, and were often presented as wedding gifts to noble women, or as baptism gifts to their children. They were used for private devotion, and most were in Latin. A few have marginal annotations, suggesting that they may have been used to teach children to read.

January began with feasting (the festivities of Christmas extending until the 6th of January), and this is sometimes portrayed directly.

Feasting and gift-giving at New Year, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1411-1416, Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain). The Duke (seated at the right, in a blue robe) was a member of the French Royal Family. The work was produced in the Flanders workshop of the Limbourg brothers.
Feasting at New Year, from the Grimani Breviary, 1490-1510, Biblioteca Marciana (image is in the Public Domain). 

In terms of religious devotion, the calendar for January included commemorations of Mary the Mother of God (1st); the Epiphany (8th); the Baptism of Christ (9th); and the Conversion of Saint Paul (25th). These were occasions for both public and private devotion, and are often marked, in Books of Hours, both by specific prayers, and by appropriate illustrations.

The Hours of Marie of Burgundy, c1477, National Library of Austria. Marie herself is shown reading in the foreground, but also, with her husband, worshiping the Virgin Mary in the background.  
The Epiphany, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).

The liturgical, agricultural and astrological dimensions of the year moved in concert with one another, and scenes of daily life appropriate to the season often appear alongside astrological symbols, interspersed with the devotional passages. Medieval winters really were colder than modern ones: the "Little Ice Age" that ended the Norse settlement of Greenland and Newfoundland at the beginning of the Fourteenth Century was felt across Europe, and extended into the Seventeenth Century.

January, from a Flemish Book of Hours, 1400-50 (image is in the Public Domain). The artist is Simon Bening, whose workshop was in Bruges. 
"Hunters in the Snow," by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, Kunsthistoriches Museum (image is in the Public Domain). Such paintings emerged directly from the tradition of earlier Flemish Books of Hours.

The commercial workshops that produced hand-copied and illuminated Books of Hours continued to operate even after the introduction of printing in the mid-Sixteenth Century, and their clients included the English Royal Family, as well as households of the newly-wealthy commercial class. It was only with the Protestant Reformation that the popularity of this art-form began to decline.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.