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".

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).


  1. Anonymous1/2/17 14:32

    Dear Madam, Forgive my bad french.I'm a teacher of greek language and I'm just translating Lucian's Portraits in french (Les Belles Lettres, Paris), I'd be very interested if I could quote your words about irony in this text. Yours sincerly Anne-Marie Ozanam

  2. Dear Anne-Marie My blog is published under the Creative Commons license, which means that you may freely quote from it as long as you give proper credit and it is not used for commercial purposes.
    Good luck with your translation,


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