21 April 2008

Panthea, the "all-divine" girl and Emperor Lucius Verus, Part II

Please take a moment, scroll down, and read Part I first.

Just after we left our two friends Polystratus and Lycinus (Lucian's alter ego), in Part I, they had the bright idea to turn their conversation into a book. Let us, says Polystratus,

put our portraits together, the statue that you modelled of her body and the pictures that I painted of her soul; let us blend them all into one, put it down in a book for everyone to admire, not only those now alive, but those that shall live hereafter.

This timeless book is On Images and Polystratus, who is acquainted with the Emperor's mistress, repeats the whole dialogue to Panthea from memory (2nd century sophists did not have attention deficit disorders). Lucian's second dialogue, Defending 'On Images', begins with his reporting to Lycinus how she responded to the eulogy. She is not happy. The praise, she declares, is much too high for her:

My own attitude, please understand, is this. In general, I do not care for people [who flatter], but consider consider such persons deceivers.... Above all, in the matter of compliments, when anyone in praising me employs immoderate extravagances I blush and almost stop my ears, and the thing seems to me more like abuse than praise.

You said, she chides him, that I was modest and free from vanity, yet you set me "above the very stars, even to the point of likening [me] to goddesses. " I would be committing a sacrilege and a sin, she goes on, if I let myself be compared to a goddess. That's not because he compared her to Aphrodite of Cnidus (above left) -- who is perfectly naked [the verbal portrait gives her the seemly drapery of another statue]. No, it is because she is a mere mortal: "Just praise [me] if you will, "she says, "in the ordinary, human way, but do not let the sandal be too large for [my] foot, for ... it might hamper me when I walk about in it."

So she instructs Lycinus to change those parts of his book and resubmit it to her for her approval. This puts him in a pretty pickle. The book is already in circulation. He has no choice but to defend himself ... and he begins as he means to go on:
Noblest of women, it is true I praised you, as you say, highly and immoderately; but I do not see what commendation I bestowed as great as the [praise] which you have pronounced upon yourself in extolling your reverence for the gods.... So in that particular at least I not only did not go beyond bounds, it seems to me, with my praises, but actually said far less than I should. So if the speech absolutely must be revised and the portrait corrected, I should not venture to take a single thing away from it, but will add this detail to cap, as it were, and crown the complete work.
And so he turns his so-called defence into still higher tribute. Anyway, he argues, I didn't compare you to the goddesses themselves but just to statues and paintings of goddesses; and, if that is wrong, many good poets before me have already committed this sin. The worst offender was the most esteemed -- your fellow-citizen Homer, and so, if I am guilty, he himself will be convicted along with me:

I shall therefore ask him, or, better, ask you in his stead, since you know by heart -- and it is greatly to your credit -- all the prettiest of the verses that he composed.

In short she knows her Homer inside out. But Homer is not the only label that Panthea is sporting.


What's Wrong With This Picture?

There is no doubt that Lucian spent some time in Antioch at the court of Lucius Verus when the emperor was in supreme command of the Roman forces during the years of the Parthian War, from 163–166. If this praise of Verus' mistress is really indirect and sycophantic praise of the emperor, he would hardly be the first literary type trying to get ahead in the power game by writing eulogies of an emperor's fair love (remember how the poets Martial and Statius celebrated Domitian's eunuch lover in their quest for imperial patronage).

But such a reading contradicts everything we know (or think we know) about Lucian. He is, as he tells us, a friend of open discourse and truth: "A man who will call a fig a fig, and a spade a spade. [Who] will simply tell it how it was."

After all, Lucian devotes an entire work (On Salaried Posts) to lambast those educated Greeks who hire themselves out to wealthy Romans , abandoning both their freedom and their dignity in the process. "In my own individual case," he states forthrightly, " I would not accept even being the Great King's companion and being seen as such if I gained no moral benefit from the association."

That seems clear enough.

Yet here he is, devoting two dialogues to the beauty and virtue of the Great King's mistress. Is it, in a nutshell, that Lucian, "the mocker of flatterers, beats all flatterers hands down"?

Of course, you could argue that Lucian doesn't really mean it: it's all a courtly world of masks and illusions. He just wants to please Lucius Verus by insincere but clever flattery of his mistress. The Historiae Augustae warned us that Verus (a good-looking guy [above right] -- and, anyway, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac), "when he came to Antioch ... gave himself wholly to riotous living". Perhaps Lucian, the clever satirist, abandons laughter to go with the flow.

Must I accept that one of my absolutely favourite ancient authors is a hypocrite?

Not yet. There's another, more misogynist explanation.

Selling oneself as educated in this period (the 'Second Sophistic') meant manipulating literary allusions to the past in increasingly witty ways; your audience of equally educated sophists would appreciate just how well you played on ancient sources. If you get it right, you are held in high esteem. As Lucian says about himself: "Everyone who sees you will nudge the guy next to him , and point to you with his finger saying, 'That's him!"

So, reading between the lines, what looks on the surface to be sincere praise is really withering irony -- and that would be understood as such in Lucian's hyper-educated circle. If so, when Lucian praises Panthea's learning, the precision of her language, her ready wit, culture and wisdom -- it is all part of the joke. To put it bluntly, "the idea that Panthea was an intellectual would have been bizarre," according to a recent essay by Professor Keith Sidwell.* Lucian's audience of male sophists would have giggled like mad.

Let's look at the main points that would have them rolling in the aisles:

1. That she was educated.

Prof. Sidwell: Women were not educated -- so the claim would be a source of hilarity "because it is absolutely contrary to fact".

But
Lucian aptly compares Panthea to Aspasia of Miletus, the consort of the great Pericles, who was reputed to be an astonishingly educated women and of "rare political wisdom". This flatters both Panthea and Lucius Verus (= Pericles), which would surely have backfired if it was just rib-tickling fantasy. And that little detail of the scroll she was holding when Lycinus first saw her -- with both ends of it rolled up, so that she seemed to be reading -- has the ring of truth.

2. That she thought such flattery of herself was inappropriate.

Prof. Sidwell: The "teasing irony" is that Panthea claims to know the rules of eulogy. Lycinus/Lucian must thus patiently disabuse her of the notion that he has done anything not sanctioned by literary tradition.

But she knows Lucian well enough (at least through his work) to know that he was a "mocker of flatterers", so she says to him: "Do away with all that is excessive and invidious, Lycinus -- that sort of thing is not in keeping with your character, for you have not as a rule been ready and quick to praise.... you who were so niggardly before have become a spendthrift in compliments!"

Polystratus, too, is convinced by her arguments; is he now an uneducated nincompoop as well? "When I heard it first, I did not see a single fault in what you had written, but now that she has pointed them out, I myself begin to think as she does about it."

3. That he compared her to goddesses and that he must change his work because of her religious scruples.

Prof. Sidwell: Panthea doesn't understand the difference between the gods themselves and their statues ... and is ignorant of poetic tradition.

But this is not quite true, for in On Images he did say that she vies with golden Aphrodite in beauty and equals Athena herself in accomplishments.

Not statues, goddesses. We'll let that pass in the spirit of poetic license.

How would these jokes have been received?

Panthea, speculates Prof. Sidwell, "had probably grown used to receiving and enjoying the grossest of flatteries" . If so, I presume that she did not object to Lucian's similar (if wittier) exaggerations. But he says she did object and compliments her upon this very fact. If, instead, she had lapped it up, this surely would have been an unpardonable affront.

Finally, Lucius Verus, who was very well educated himself, might have twigged what was going on. It is one thing not to suck up to power, quite another to insult it.

Could it just be possible that Panthea deserved some of Lucian's extravagant praise?

Marcus Aurelius has his say

Lucius Verus died, probably from plague, in 169. Soon after his death, Marcus Aurelius (who was also Verus's father-in-law) asks himself in his Meditations
Are Panthea and Pergamos still sitting beside the tomb of Verus?
It was certainly a sign that he recognized her devotion, even if, as a stoic, he thought it ridiculous. Lucian, in turn, gives evidence of her devotion to Verus. Perhaps, after all, at their court in Antioch, he found some "moral benefit from the association."

And that is the last we ever hear of her.



* A specialist in Lucian studies. DAMNING WITH GREAT PRAISE: PARADOX IN LUCIAN’S IMAGINES AND PRO IMAGINIBUS, in Pleiades Setting: Essays for Pat Cronin on his 65th birthday (Cork 2002).

13 April 2008

Panthea, the "all-divine" girl and Emperor Lucius Verus

An old joke from pre-digital days -- when newsprint was still set in metal type -- was that newspapers kept some headlines permanently typeset, instantly ready for inevitable reuse: one such headline was

"Italian Government Falls".

Today, when Italy is going to the polls yet again, I can put a better slant on that old joke with a new headline :

"Italian Police Seize Stolen Archaeological Treasures".

The police are doing so well in retrieving stolen antiquities that they are about to display some of their spoils in the papal fortress Castello Sant'Angelo (aka Hadrian's Tomb) in Rome from 24 April - 19 June.* The latest addition to this bravo show is a rare head of Lucius Verus, co-emperor (r. 161-169 AD) and adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius, part of a stash seized this very week from a boat garage in Fiumicino, near the airport of Rome.

So far, so good. But I wonder why the news report insists on calling Lucius Verus the 'shy' emperor, attributing to him an unlikely "desire to stay out of the limelight". Well, I, for one, am surprised.

Lucius wasn't especially timid. I don't want to get into the debate about his role in the Parthian War, but a bit of background is needed before I get to his erotic history.

In 161 AD, the Parthian king Vologaesus IV thought he saw a window of opportunity and installed his own candidate on the Armenian throne (more on the 'Great Armenian Game' in The Other Zenobia). A Roman legion promptly marched from Cappadocia to restore the pro-Roman king but fell into a Parthian trap: "then shooting down and destroying the whole force, leaders and all; [Vologaesus now advanced], powerful and formidable, against the cities of Syria." Armenia is one thing, Syria quite another. Marcus Aurelius acted, dispatching Lucius Verus to oversee the war. The Historiae Augustae claims that Verus was more inclined to enjoy himself on the trip than to prepare for war -- and that his generals did the real fighting. Cassius Dio, however, tells us that Verus was a "vigorous man, well suited for military enterprises,"

and that he went to Antioch and collected a large body of troops; then, keeping the best of the leaders under his personal command, he took up his own headquarters in the city, where he made all the dispositions and assembled the supplies for the war.

Whatever the truth, the Romans got their act together and counter-attacked, reaching as far as the Parthian capital Cteisiphon (near modern Baghdad), which they burnt and sacked in 165.

The campaign against Parthia proved to be as decisive as any war in recent Roman history, and surely some credit belongs to Varus. A Roman-backed king once again sat the Armenian throne and Parthia had been thoroughly defeated.

Yet I confess that when I think of Lucius Verus, the Parthian War is not the first thing that comes to mind, but rather the story of Panthea, his mistress (whose name means "all-divine") and the rumours of what they got up to together.

The Negative

The Historiae Augustae is in full censorious mode:


When he set out for Syria, his name was smirched not only by the licence of an unbridled life, but also by adulteries and by love-affairs with young men.... It is said, moreover, that he used to dice the whole night through ... and that he so rivalled Caligula, Nero, and Vitellius in their vices as to wander about at night through taverns and brothels with only a common travelling-cap for a head-covering.

Tchah! How utterly un-imperial.

To get him back on the straight and narrow, the saintly Marcus sent him off to war. Let the army make an emperor of him -- or, at the very least, get him away from Rome "that he might commit his debaucheries away from the city and the eyes of all citizens." But the lure of the sensuous East was strong and, in Syria, Verus committed the Hist. Aug.'s ultimate sin:**

he shaved off his beard while in Syria to humour the whim of a low-born mistress; and because of this many things were said against him by the Syrians.

That mistress was the luscious Panthea.

The Positive

We are lucky to have two complete dialogues by the satirist Lucian devoted to Panthea, On Images, and Defending 'On Images'. So we know a lot about her, or think we do. On Images begins when the hero Lycinus (who is Lucian himself -- at least in part) tells his friend Polystratus that he's just seen the most perfectly beautiful woman -- and was "struck stiff with amazement and came within an ace of being turned into stone" by the sight.

I can't say who she is, but she received much attention, kept splendid state in every way, had a number of eunuchs and a great many maids, and, in general, the thing seemed to be on on a greater scale than accords with private station.


He then paints a most glorious word picture of her and the feelings she inspired, using the iconography and bodies of famous Greek statues by Praxiteles and Pheidias as well as quotations from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (especially apt as this great beauty came from Smyrna, the birthplace, it was believed, of Homer himself).

He begins by describing her head as like that of Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Cnidus, the most celebrated Greek statue of the ancient world (above, thought to be its best Roman copy), and in the eyes also, that gaze so liquid, and at the same time so clear and winsome. And then goes on to build up every part and colour from art and epic, until he's put her together again. Finally Polystratus recognizes who she is and shouts out:
It is the Emperor's mistress, you simpleton -- the woman who is so famous!
Lycinus then begs for a description of her soul.
Most important for a Greek (and Lucian, though born in Samosata on the Euphrates, is steeped in Greek literary conventions) is her virtue -- in the Greek sense: "Beauty," he stresses "is not enough unless it is set off with its just enhancements, by which I mean, not purple raiment and necklaces, but those I have already mentioned -- virtue, self-control, goodness, kindliness, and everything else that is included in the definition of virtues."

She has these, too, in spades.

Lycinus: This, then, is what sculptors and painters and poets can achieve; but who could counterfeit the flower of it all -- the grace; nay, all the Graces in company, and all the Loves, too, circling hand in hand about her?

Polystratus: It's a miraculous creature that you describe, Lycinus; 'dropped from the skies' in very truth, quite like something out of Heaven. But what was she doing when you saw her?

Lycinus: She had a scroll in her hands, with both ends of it rolled up, so that she seemed to be reading....

So Panthea is literate and, one can imagine, reasonably educated -- at a time when it was still uncommon even for elite women to be learned. Lucius Verus was himself extremely cultured. The disapproving author of the Hist. Aug. is forced to admit that he cherished a deep and abiding affection for his teachers in rhetoric and philosophy and "in return he was beloved by them." As a youth, "he loved to compose verses, and later on in life, orations", although with the nasty aside that "he had no natural gifts in literary studies".

Even given such a background, I find it remarkable that Lycinus/Lucian feels strongly enough to end with this surprising reversal: it is entirely "in keeping that our Emperor, being very kind and civilized, along with the rest of the good fortune which he enjoys, should be so honoured by Fortune as to have such a woman born in his time and that she should be his mistress and desire him."

Quite de bas en haut.

The Inscrutable

We get the chance to hear Panthea's own voice and opinions in Defending 'On Images', Lucian's second dialogue about her. But I'm afraid this post is already too long. We'll listen to what she has to say -- and what her modern male detractors say in reply -- in the next post.

I'll be in Rome for the rest of this week, certainly seeing the
Rosso pompeiano show at the Palazzo Massimo. Part II of Panthea, the "all-divine" girl thus follows next weekend.


Update 18 April 2008: David Meadows has a great photograph of the recovered bust of Lucius Verus on his blog rogueclassicism. The emperor looks sadder, if perhaps wiser, than on the image at the top of this post. And notice (David did!) his Syrian-style moustache.


* I've written about other recent police successes at Poppaea's Painting in Paris and Stolen Oplontis Fresco on Show in Rome.

**
Hist. Aug. very much on their high horse, too, about the purportedly beardless Emperor Elagabalus: Hairiness Makes the Man and The Curious Case of Elagabalus' Beard.

The engraving of "The Dance of the Pleiades" is by the American symbolist painter, Elihu Vedder (1838-1923); image courtesy of Art Connections.

05 April 2008

Verbosity? Who Says?

On average, Zenobia's blog posts are around 2079 words in length.
This is 449 percent longer than other bloggers who took this test.
Do you talk too much in your blog?
Created by OnePlusYou

I can't help it. I like adjectives. Especially uppity adjectives. And circumlocution.

Plutarch (who should know -- given the incredible wordiness, prolixity, and perhaps even occasional windiness of his Moralia) consoles me thus:

Do not fight verbosity with words: speech is given to all, intelligence to few.

02 April 2008

Stolen Oplontis fresco on show in Rome

Huge Roman landscape mural on display after 40 years abroad

Rome, March 27 - A Roman fresco recovered by art police from a private house in Paris last month went on show to the public for the first time in Rome on Thursday. This is the painting (now in lamentably fragmentary condition) that I wrote about in the post Poppaea's Painting in Paris, when the police operation, dubbed Operation Ulysses,

uncovered a haul of more than a thousand archaeological finds and a series of outstanding Impressionist forgeries. The trail initially led investigators to Milan and then eventually abroad, first to Switzerland and later onto Paris. The fresco was finally tracked down to an elegant house in the French capital..

But whose "elegant house" in Paris was then unknown. The latest news names him (and should shame him) -- Jacques Marcoux, "a publisher and art collector" and his house is in the undoubtably swish Place Vendome in the centre of Paris. But who, really, is Monsieur Marcoux? Googling brings up no information at all. That's strange. Who is unGoogl-able in this day and age?

The News Report

Archaeologists believe the painting was illegally removed during the 1970s from the walls of a villa in Oplontis, one of the towns covered in ash and cinder during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Dating to the first century AD, the painting shows a bower of vines, a satyr riding a mule, and a cloaked woman making a sacrifice at an altar.

The three-metre long fresco is the largest landscape-themed painting ever found in the Vesuvian area. ''It's rare to see a landscape fresco of these dimensions,'' said government archaeology chief Stefano De Caro. ''Usually they are small pictures showing ports or wild nature scenes. But here we have a rural landscape, with rows of vines and a big shrine - perhaps that of Dionysus (the Greek god of wine),'' he added.

Although archaeologists have yet to work out exactly where the fragmented fresco comes from, De Caro said it may once have decorated exterior walls overlooking a garden.

Italian art police worked with Swiss, Belgian and French investigators to track down the painting, which they knew had been in Geneva in the early 1980s. The fresco hung for some time in the house of a rich industrialist in Brussels before eventually finding its way to Paris. Investigators discovered the painting in the house of French publisher and art collector Jacques Marcoux in Place Vendome in February.

After its 40-year trip abroad, the fresco has gone on display at Palazzo Massimo as part of an exhibition of wall paintings Rosso pompeiano from Pompeii, Herculaneum and other Vesuvian towns that runs until 1 June.

De Caro said the fresco would be returned to the Pompeii archaeology superintendency when the show ends.


The report in English at the website of ANSA.it (update: link expired) and with a little more information in Italian via Archaeoblog

01 April 2008

The Blue Burqa Band

This Afghan girl rock group appears as three blue ghosts floating through the streets of Kabul,* singing about how they feel about wearing burqas:

You give me all your love
You give me all your kisses
Then you touch my burqa and don't know 'who is it'?



Just like the 19-year-old Afghan track star and only female on Afghanistan's four-member Olympic team, Ahdyar -- who runs dressed in a headscarf, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt -- the Blue Burqa's are subjected to Taliban-like threats.

The group's songwriter, Nargiz (not her real name), says, "It was a lot of fun, but also very scary. Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place for modern women, and when we shot the video we had to do it very discretely because no one could know that we were playing music. Of course it was a joke to sing in the burqas, but it was also necessary to wear them. If people in Afghanistan knew who the members of the Burqa Band were, we could be attacked or killed because there are still a lot of religious fanatics here."

Still? As many as ever, I'd say.
My mother wears a burqa, I must wear a burqa too.
We all wear a burqa, we don't know who is who.
Blueee, burqa blue.

According to Nargiz, only 10 people in Afghanistan know who are the faces behind the burqas in the band. They have never performed in Afghanistan (the song was a hit in Germany). Today the only place to see the Blue Burqa Band is on video.


Zenobia has had some earlier burqa posts: sadly, R.I.P. Benazir Bhutto , and a more frivolous 'burqa on the cat walk' report in Thirty Centuries of Persian Art.

* Via The F-Word Blog

Think about supporting RAWA, the oldest political/social organization of Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and women's rights in Afghanistan.

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