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.

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