On Feb. 15, in the year 44 BC, Julius Caesar, the all-powerful ruler of Rome, visited a soothsayer named Spurinna, who “predicted the future by examining the internal organs of sacrificial animals,” among other omens.
As per the ritual, Caesar “sacrificed a bull,” and Spurinna “made the chilling announcement that the beast had no heart.”
Brave Caesar was “unmoved,” but Spurinna said that he feared Caesar’s life “might come to a bad end,” and warned the dictator that “his life would be in danger for the next 30 days.”
He did not say anything about the “Ides of March,” just one difference of many between the version of Caesar’s assassination presented by William Shakespeare and the likely truth, according to Cornell University history professor Barry Strauss’ new book, “The Death of Caesar.” Strauss pored through ancient texts to determine the truest possible version of the events surrounding the assassination of the legendary leader.
In 45 BC, Rome was emerging from five years of civil war and policy debates concerned the very nature of the Roman Republic. Caesar had just been declared Dictator for Ten Years by the Roman senate, and sought more.
He believed that the Republic was an entity whose time had come and gone, and that “only his genius offered the people of the empire peace and prosperity.” The Roman Senate, having grown comfortable with their own power, believed otherwise.
Caesar understood how to nurture the love of his people. His soldiers were well-paid, and he passed laws (over the Senate’s objections) helping the poor, including protecting them from abusive government officials.
In time, though, his hunger for power made even longtime admirers squeamish. In early 44 BC, in tribute to Caesar’s recent military victories, the Senate proclaimed him Rome’s Dictator in Perpetuity, and there had long been talk that Caesar sought to be King, an unacceptable occurrence for many Romans. After the obsequious Senate declared that upon his death, Caesar would become “an official god of the Roman state,” the perception became that Caesar was too power-mad for comfort.
Several incidents followed, including one where Caesar was perceived to mock the senators just after they’d voted him honors, that hurt public and senatorial perception of Caesar.
Strauss sees one episode as the final straw. On Feb. 15, Romans enjoyed the annual Lupercalia Fertility Festival, where “after a sacrifice, priests wearing only loincloths ran around central Rome and touched bystanders, especially women, with goatskin straps.”
Caesar sat atop the Speaker’s Platform in the Roman Forum, an 11-foot-high stand he’d use to address his subjects. At one point, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), the chief priest of Rome and Caesar’s cousin and longtime compatriot, approached the platform with a crown and placed it on Caesar’s head, proclaiming, “The people give this to you though me.” As the stunned crowd stood silent, Caesar removed it, and “Antony tried again, only to get the same response.” Having rejected the crown, Caesar told the crowd, “Jupiter alone of the Romans is King.”
The reasons for Antony’s actions are unclear — he may have been trying to flatter Caesar, or perhaps convince him to give up his breathless quest for power — but many believed it a test engineered by Caesar himself to preview the people’s reactions should he be made king.
For many, this was the final proof they needed that Caesar’s ambition had turned dangerous. In the eyes of increasing numbers, Caesar had to be taken down.
Shakespeare cites two men, Gaius Cassius Longinus (Cassius) and Marcus Junius Brutus (Brutus), as having ignited the conspiracy against Caesar. Strauss says the bard was two-thirds correct.
Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus (Decimus) was a great general and a close friend of Caesar’s who rose in the ranks to become one of the most powerful men in Rome. But in a culture where the concept of “dignitas” — a complex term that meant not just dignity, but also worth, prestige and honor — was the “cherished ideal,” a life spent in Caesar’s shadow rendered Decimus uneasy.
Cassius, a general and senator, had several motives for wanting Caesar dead.
In addition to fearing his ambition, he had been passed over for several high-level positions and faced rumors that Caesar slept with his wife.
When Cassius began to seek out co-conspirators, he found that he could “manage the conspiracy but lacked the authority to lead it.”
For this, he needed Brutus, another high-level military man and politician who came from “one of the oldest families in the Republic,” and had just enough populist appeal to win over the people, thereby increasing the chances that the conspirators would survive the assassination.
As others warmed to Cassius’ conspiracy, they began a “public-relations campaign” to “persuade Brutus to act.” Graffiti began popping up in locations where Brutus worked, reading, “If only now you were Brutus,” “If only Brutus were alive,” “Brutus, wake up!” and “You aren’t really Brutus.”
This, combined with persuasion from Cassius and Brutus’ principled opposition to tyrants, drove Brutus against Caesar.
Decimus was the final piece of the puzzle, since, as “a close friend of Caesar’s,” he was the only one with the ruler’s full confidence.
(In Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” Strauss notes, Decimus is “misnamed as Decius” and shunted to a minor role.)
The three recruited approximately 60 men to join them, including Caesar supporters who felt inadequately compensated for military victories and were angered by Caesar’s policy of clemency for conquered peoples, as “they wanted to see their former enemies humbled, not raised to equality.”
For security reasons, the conspirators met in small groups in people’s homes and forewent the usual conspiracy ritual of taking pledges over sacrificial animals. They had barely a month to act, as Caesar was leaving for the Parthian War on March 18 and would be surrounded by his army from then on.
They decided to kill Caesar in the Senate House. They felt it would be the safest place, since no weapons were allowed in the Senate, several senators were involved and Caesar’s other friends would not be there to protect him.
On March 15, Caesar was scheduled to attend a meeting in the Senate. The purpose was procedural business, but a rumor was spreading that there would be a proposal to crown Caesar king.
That morning, Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, woke from a nightmare that saw her husband murdered — probably a result of her recalling the soothsayer’s earlier warning — and begged Caesar not to attend the meeting.
He shared his wife’s bad feelings about the day, especially after telling Spurinna, “The Ides of March have come,” and having the soothsayer respond, “Aye, they have come but not gone.” (The infamous “Beware the Ides of March” was never actually spoken in that form.)
Caesar, fearing the omens, cancelled his appearance in the Senate. The conspirators, then, had to persuade him to change his mind. His close friend Decimus was chosen for the task.
In an ultimate act of betrayal, Decimus, who served Caesar closely for more than a decade and was well-rewarded for his efforts, met with Caesar at his home. He told the ruler that he “should not risk disappointing the Senate, or worse, seeming to insult or mock it.” He convinced the ruler that if he failed to show for the meeting, the senators would look upon him as “a tyrant or a weakling.” He also mocked the soothsayer and the visions of Caesar’s wife, saying, “Will someone of your stature pay attention to the dreams of a woman and the omens of foolish men?”
Decimus’ prodding worked. He had succeeded in luring his dear old friend to his death.
Inside the Senate House, at around noon, Caesar took a seat on his golden throne as his enemies took the stage, having snuck in daggers under their togas or in their slaves’ baskets.
“Some of the conspirators stood behind his chair,” Strauss writes, “while others gathered around him, as if they were going to pay their respects or bring some matter to his attention. They were really forming a perimeter.” Strauss says it’s likely that Caesar was initially surrounded by around 12 men, with more prepared to join a “second wave.”
Once the meeting was underway, Caesar, as per the plan, was approached by Tillius Cimber, a “hard-drinking scrapper” who “had Caesar’s favor,” and presented “a petition on behalf of his exiled brother.”
As he made his point, Cimber “disrespected Caesar by coming up to him with his hands out instead of keeping them humbly beneath his toga. Then, Cimber took hold of Caesar’s toga and held it so tightly that he kept Caesar from getting up.” Finally, Cimber “pulled the toga from Caesar’s shoulder.”
“Why, this is violence!” screamed the enraged leader, who understood all too quickly — and yet, too late — that the omens had been correct.
“As agreed on in advance,” writes Strauss, “pulling down Caesar’s toga was the signal to start the attack.”
Publius Servilius Casca, a friend of Caesar’s and an “experienced killer,” was given “the honor of the first blow.”
Casca swung his knife toward Caesar’s neck, but stabbed him in the chest instead, as Caesar was now thrashing to defend himself. He likely swatted Casca away, but the blows from others were coming too quickly.
Casca’s brother, Gaius Casca, “delivered the second blow, which struck the dictator in the ribs,” and his other attackers descended, encircling Caesar and mutilating his body. Many of the key conspirators got shots in, with Cassius “plant[ing] a slanting blow across the face,” Decimus striking “deep under the ribs,” and Brutus, who himself received a slash across the hand from Cassius in the melee, likely connecting with Caesar’s thigh.
Strauss notes that throughout this, Caesar never cried out, “Et tu, Brute,” proclaiming the phrase a “Renaissance invention.”
It is believed that Gaius Casca’s blow was the fatal one, and that those who thrusted after stabbed Caesar’s dead body simply so they could proclaim their involvement. Caesar likely received 23 stab wounds and died within minutes.
The conspirators immediately hit the streets, seeking public support by denouncing Caesar as a tyrant and boasting of how they’d return Rome to glory as a Republic. So assured were they of obtaining this support that they walked “with their daggers drawn and their hands still bloody.”
But both the public and Caesar’s army were more divided than they’d hoped. Ultimately, Brutus and Cassius went into battle against Caesar supporters Mark Antony and Gaius Octavius (Octavian), with each side having anywhere from 50,000-100,000 men.
Antony captured Decimus, ordering his death, then soundly defeated Cassius’ forces. Cassius mistakenly thought Brutus had been beaten by then as well, and, believing all was lost, had one of his men decapitate him. Brutus, then seeing his own defeat as inevitable, killed himself.
Antony and Octavian divided Rome and its territories between them, and after Antony’s death, Octavian became Caesar Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire.
In time, Julius Caesar would be remembered not as power-hungry but as a great leader, with many Roman rulers after him taking on Caesar as a title. “The German ‘kaiser’ and the Russian ‘tsar,’ ” Strauss notes, “derive from Caesar.
“Far from condemning Caesar as a tyrant, people mourn him as a martyr. Caesar’s genius and his sympathy for the poor live on while his war against the Republic in favor of one-man rule . . . [is] forgotten.”
First of all, we must raise the question whether there is such a thing as an art of the sublime or lofty. Some hold that those are entirely in error who would bring such matters under the precepts of art. A lofty tone, says one, is innate, and does not come by teaching; nature is the only art that can compass it. Works of nature are, they think, made worse and altogether feebler when wizened by the rules of art. But I maintain that this will be found to be otherwise if it be observed that, while nature as a rule is free and independent in matters of passion and elevation, yet is she wont not to act at random and utterly without system. Further, nature is the original and vital underlying principle in all cases, but system can define limits and fitting seasons, and can also contribute the safest rules for use and practice. Moreover, the expression of the sublime is more exposed to danger when it goes its own way without the guidance of knowledge,—when it is suffered to be unstable and unballasted,—when it is left at the mercy of mere momentum and ignorant audacity. It is true that it often needs the spur, but it is also true that it often needs the curb. Demosthenes expresses the view, with regard to human life in general, that good fortune is the greatest of blessings, while good counsel, which occupies the second place, is hardly inferior in importance, since its absence contributes inevitably to the ruin of the former (“Against Aristocrates”). This we may apply to diction, nature occupying the position of good fortune, art that of good counsel. Most important of all, we must remember that the very fact that there are some elements of expression which are in the hands of nature alone, can be learnt from no other source than art. If, I say, the critic of those who desire to learn were to turn these matters over in his mind, he would no longer, it seems to me, regard the discussion of the subject as superfluous or useless. . . .
Quell they the oven’s far-flung splendor-glow!
Ha, let me but one hearth-abider mark—
One flame-wreath torrent-like I’ll whirl on high;
I’ll burn the roof, to cinders shrivel it!—
Nay, now my chant is not of noble strain.
(Aeschylus, tr. A. S. Way)
Such things are not tragic but pseudo-tragic—“flame-wreaths,” and “belching to the sky,” and Boreas represented as a “flute-player,” and all the rest of it. They are turbid in expression and confused in imagery rather than the product of intensity, and each one of them, if examined in the light of day, sinks little by little from the terrible into the contemptible. But since even in tragedy, which is in its very nature stately and prone to bombast, tasteless tumidity is unpardonable, still less, I presume, will it harmonize with the narration of fact. And this is the ground on which the phrases of Gorgias of Leontini are ridiculed when he describes Xerxes as the “Zeus of the Persians” and vultures as “living tombs.” So is it with some of the expressions of Callisthenes which are not sublime but high-flown, and still more with those of Cleitarchus, for the man is frivolous and blows, as Sophocles has it,
On pigmy hautboys: mouthpiece have they none.
(Sophocles, tr. A. S. Way)
Other examples will be found in Amphicrates and Hegesias and Matris, for often when these writers seem to themselves to be inspired they are in no true frenzy but are simply trifling. Altogether, tumidity seems particularly hard to avoid. The explanation is that all who aim at elevation are so anxious to escape the reproach of being weak and dry that they are carried, as by some strange law of nature, into the opposite extreme. They put their trust in the maxim that “failure in a great attempt is at least a noble error.” But evil are the swellings, both in the body and in diction, which are inflated and unreal, and threaten us with the reverse of our aim; for nothing, say they, is drier than a man who has the dropsy. While tumidity desires to transcend the limits of the sublime, the defect which is termed puerility is the direct antithesis of elevation, for it is utterly low and mean and in real truth the most ignoble vice of style. What, then, is this puerility? Clearly, a pedant’s thoughts, which begin in learned trifling and end in frigidity. Men slip into this kind of error because, while they aim at the uncommon and elaborate and most of all at the attractive, they drift unawares into the tawdry and affected. A third, and closely allied, kind of defect in matters of passion is that which Theodorus used to call parenthyrsus. By this is meant unseasonable and empty passion, where no passion is required, or immoderate, where moderation is needed. For men are often carried away, as if by intoxication, into displays of emotion which are not caused by the nature of the subject, but are purely personal and wearisome. In consequence they seem to hearers who are in no wise affected to act in an ungainly way. And no wonder; for they are beside themselves, while their hearers are not. But the question of the passions we reserve for separate treatment.
Of the second fault of which we have spoken—frigidity—Timaeus supplies many examples. Timaeus was a writer of considerable general ability, who occasionally showed that he was not incapable of elevation of style. He was learned and ingenious, but very prone to criticize the faults of others while blind to his own. Through his passion for continually starting novel notions, he often fell into the merest childishness. I will set down one or two examples only of his manner, since the greater number have been already appropriated by Caecilius. In the course of a eulogy on Alexander the Great, he describes him as “the man who gained possession of the whole of Asia in fewer years than it took Isocrates to write his Panegyric urging war against the Persians.” Strange indeed is the comparison of the man of Macedon with the rhetorician. How plain it is, Timaeus, that the Lacedaemonians, thus judged, were far inferior to Isocrates in prowess, for they spent thirty years in the conquest of Messene, whereas he composed his Panegyric in ten. Consider again the way in which he speaks of the Athenians who were captured in Sicily. “They were punished because they had acted impiously towards Hermes and mutilated his images, and the infliction of punishment was chiefly due to Hermocrates the son of Hermon, who was descended, in the paternal line, from the outraged god.” I am surprised, beloved Terentianus, that he does not write with regard to the despot Dionysius that “Dion and Heracleides deprived him of his sovereignty because he had acted impiously towards Zeus and Heracles.” But why speak of Timaeus when even those heroes of literature, Xenophon and Plato, though trained in the school of Socrates, nevertheless sometimes forget themselves for the sake of such paltry pleasantries? Xenophon writes in the Policy of the Lacedaemonians: “You would find it harder to hear their voice than that of busts of marble, harder to deflect their gaze than that of statues of bronze; you would deem them more modest than the very maidens in their eyes” (De Rep. Laced. III. 5).
It was worthy of an Amphicrates and not of a Xenophon to call the pupils of our eyes “modest maidens.” Good heavens, how strange it is that the pupils of the whole company should be believed to be modest notwithstanding the common saying that the shamelessness of individuals is indicated by nothing so much as the eyes! “Thou sot? that hast the eyes of a dog,” as Homer has it (Iliad 1.225. Way’s translation). Timaeus, however, has not left even this piece of frigidity to Xenophon, but clutches it as though it were hid treasure. At all events, after saying of Agathocles that he abducted his cousin, who had been given in marriage to another man, from the midst of the nuptial rites, he asks, “Who could have done this had he not had wantons, in place of maidens, in his eyes?” Yes, and Plato (usually so divine) when he means simply tablets says, “They shall write and preserve cypress memorials in the temples” (Laws 5.741c).
And again, “As touching walls, Megillus, I should hold with Sparta that they be suffered to lie asleep in the earth and not summoned to arise” (Laws 778d). The expression of Herodotus to the effect that beautiful women are “eye-smarts” is not much better (Histories 5.18). This, however, may be condoned in some degree since those who use this particular phrase in his narrative are barbarians and in their cups, but not even in the mouths of such characters is it well that an author should suffer, in the judgment of posterity, from an unseemly exhibition of triviality.
All these ugly and parasitical growths arise in literature from a single cause, that pursuit of novelty in the expression of ideas which may be regarded as the fashionable craze of the day. Our defects usually spring, for the most part, from the same sources as our good points. Hence, while beauties of expression and touches of sublimity, and charming elegancies withal, are favorable to effective composition, yet these very things are the elements and foundation, not only of success, but also of the contrary. Something of the kind is true also of variations and hyperboles and the use of the plural number, and we shall show subsequently the dangers to which these seem severally to be exposed. It is necessary now to seek and to suggest means by which we may avoid the defects which attend the steps of the sublime.
The best means would be, friend, to gain, first of all, clear knowledge and appreciation of the true sublime. The enterprise is, however, an arduous one. For the judgment of style is the last and crowning fruit of long experience. None the less, if I must speak in the way of precept, it is not impossible perhaps to acquire discrimination in these matters by attention to some such hints as those which follow.
You must know, my dear friend, that it is with the sublime as in the common life of man. In life nothing can be considered great which it is held great to despise. For instance, riches, honors, distinctions, sovereignties, and all other things which possess in abundance the external trappings of the stage, will not seem, to a man of sense, to be supreme blessings, since the very contempt of them is reckoned good in no small degree, and in any case those who could have them, but are high-souled enough to disdain them, are more admired than those who have them. So also in the case of sublimity in poems and prose writings, we must consider whether some supposed examples have not simply the appearance of elevation with many idle accretions, so that when analyzed they are found to be mere vanity—objects which a noble nature will rather despise than admire. For, as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.
When, therefore, a thing is heard repeatedly by a man of intelligence, who is well versed in literature, and its effect is not to dispose the soul to high thoughts, and it does not leave in the mind more food for reflection than the words seem to convey, but falls, if examined carefully through and through, into disesteem, it cannot rank as true sublimity because it does not survive a first hearing. For that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface. In general, consider those examples of sublimity, to be fine and genuine which please all and always. For when men of different pursuits, lives, ambitions, ages, languages, hold identical views on one and the same subject, then that verdict which results, so to speak, from a concert of discordant elements makes our faith in the object of admiration strong and unassailable.
There are, it may be said, five principal sources of elevated language. Beneath these five varieties there lies, as though it were a common foundation, the gift of discourse, which is indispensable. First and most important is the power of forming great conceptions, as we have elsewhere explained in our remarks on Xenophon. Secondly, there is vehement and inspired passion. These two components of the sublime are for the most part innate. Those which remain are partly the product of art. The due formation of figures deals with two sorts of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression. Next there is noble diction, which in turn comprises choice of words, and use of metaphors, and elaboration of language. The fifth cause of elevation—one which is the fitting conclusion of all that have preceded it—is dignified and elevated composition. Come now, let us consider what is involved in each of these varieties, with this one remark by way of preface, that Caecilius has omitted some of the five divisions, for example, that of passion. Surely he is quite mistaken if he does so on the ground that these two, sublimity and passion, are a unity, and if it seems to him that they are by nature one and inseparable. For some passions are found which are far removed from sublimity and are of a low order, such as pity, grief and fear; and on the other hand there are many examples of the sublime which are independent of passion, such as the daring words of Homer with regard to the Aloadae, to take one out of numberless instances,
Yea, Ossa in fury they strove to upheave on Olympus on high,
With forest-clad Pelion above, that thence they might step to
(Odyssey 11. 315–16)
And so of the words which follow with still greater force:—
Ay, and the deed had they done.
(Odyssey 11. 317)
Among the orators, too, eulogies and ceremonial and occasional addresses contain on every side examples of dignity and elevation, but are for the most part void of passion. This is the reason why passionate speakers are the worst eulogists, and why, on the other hand, those who are apt in encomium are the least passionate. If, on the other hand, Caecilius thought that passion never contributes at all to sublimity, and if it was for this reason that he did not deem it worthy of mention, he is altogether deluded. I would affirm with confidence that there is no tone so lofty as that of genuine passion, in its right place, when it bursts out in a wild gust of mad enthusiasm and as it were fills the speaker’s words with frenzy.
Now the first of the conditions mentioned, namely elevation of mind, holds the foremost rank among them all. We must, therefore, in this case also, although we have to do rather with an endowment than with an acquirement, nurture our souls (as far as that is possible) to thoughts sublime, and make them always pregnant, so to say, with noble inspiration. In what way, you may ask, is this to be done? Elsewhere I have written as follows: “Sublimity is the echo of a great soul.” Hence also a bare idea, by itself and without a spoken word, sometimes excites admiration just because of the greatness of soul implied. Thus the silence of Ajax in the Underworld is great and more sublime than words (Odyssey 11. 543 ff.). First, then, it is absolutely necessary to indicate the source of this elevation, namely, that the truly eloquent must be free from low and ignoble thoughts. For it is not possible that men with mean and servile ideas and aims prevailing throughout their lives should produce anything that is admirable and worthy of immortality. Great accents we expect to fall from the lips of those whose thoughts are deep and grave. Thus it is that stately speech comes naturally to the proudest spirits. [You will remember the answer of] Alexander to Parmenio when he said “For my part I had been well content” [quotation from Arrian—Roberts’s note] . . .
. . . the distance [ellipses here indicate gap in text—ed.] from earth to heaven; and this might well be considered the measure of Homer no less than of Strife. How unlike to this the expression which is used of Sorrow by Hesiod, if indeed the Shield is to be attributed to Hesiod:
Rheum from her nostrils was trickling.
(“Shield of Heracles,” 267, trans. A. S. Way)
The image he has suggested is not terrible but rather loathsome. Contrast the way in which Homer magnifies the higher powers:
And far as a man with his eyes through the sea-line haze may
On a cliff as he sitteth and gazeth away o’er the wine-dark
So far at a bound do the loud-neighing steeds of the Deathless
(Iliad 5. 770, trans. A. S. Way)
He makes the vastness of the world the measure of their leap. The sublimity is so overpowering as naturally to prompt the exclamation that if the divine steeds were to leap thus twice in succession they would pass beyond the confines of the world. How transcendent also are the images in the Battle of the Gods:—
Far round wide heaven and Olympus echoed his clarion of
(Iliad 21. 388)
And Hades, king of the realm of shadows, quaked thereunder.
And he sprang from his throne, and he cried aloud in the dread
of his heart
Lest o’er him earth-shaker Poseidon should cleave the ground
And revealed to Immortals and mortals should stand those
Those mansions ghastly and grim, abhorred of the very Gods.
(Iliad 20. 61–65)
You see, my friend, how the earth is torn from its foundations, Tartarus itself is laid bare, the whole world is upturned and parted asunder, and all things together—heaven and hell, things mortal and things immortal—share in the conflict and the perils of that battle!
But although these things are awe-inspiring, yet from another point of view, if they be not taken allegorically, they are altogether impious, and violate our sense of what is fitting. Homer seems to me, in his legends of wounds suffered by the gods, and of their feuds, reprisals, tears, bonds, and all their manifold passions, to have made, as far as lay within his power, gods of the men concerned in the Siege of Troy, and men of the gods. But whereas we mortals have death as the destined haven of our ills if our lot is miserable, he portrays the gods as immortal not only in nature but also in misfortune. Much superior to the passages respecting the Battle of the Gods are those which represent the divine nature as it really is—pure and great and undefiled; for example, what is said of Poseidon in a passage fully treated by many before ourselves:—
Her far-stretching ridges, her forest-trees, quaked in dismay,
And her peaks, and the Trojans’ town, and the ships of Achaia’s
Beneath his immortal feet, as onward Poseidon strode.
Then over the surges he drave: leapt sporting before the God
Sea-beasts that uprose all round from the depths, for their king
And for rapture the sea was disparted, and onward the
(Iliad 13. 18)
Similarly, the legislator of the Jews, no ordinary man, having formed and expressed a worthy conception of the might of the Godhead, writes at the very beginning of his Laws, “God said”—what? “Let there be light, and there was light; let there be land, and there was land.” Perhaps I shall not seem tedious, friend, if I bring forward one passage more from Homer—this time with regard to the concerns of men—in order to show that he is wont himself to enter into the sublime actions of his heroes. In his poem the battle of the Greeks is suddenly veiled by mist and baffling night. Then Ajax, at his wits’ end, cries:
Zeus, Father, yet save thou Achaia’s sons from beneath the
And make clear day, and vouchsafe unto us with our eyes to
So it be but in light, destroy us!
(Iliad 17. 645)
That is the true attitude of an Ajax. He does not pray for life, for such a petition would have ill beseemed a hero. But since in the hopeless darkness he can turn his valor to no noble end, he chafes at his slackness in the fray and craves the boon of immediate light, resolved to find a death worthy of his bravery, even though Zeus should fight in the ranks against him. In truth, Homer in these cases shares the full inspiration of the combat, and it is neither more nor less than true of the poet himself that
Mad rageth he as Arěs the shaker of spears, or as mad flames
Wild-wasting from hill unto hill in the folds of a forest deep,
And the foam-froth fringeth his lips.
(Iliad 15. 605–7)
He shows, however, in the Odyssey (and this further observation deserves attention on many grounds) that, when a great genius is declining, the special token of old age is the love of marvelous tales.
It is clear from many indications that the Odyssey was his second subject. A special proof is the fact that he introduces in that poem remnants of the adventures before Ilium as episodes, so to say, of the Trojan War. And indeed, he there renders a tribute of mourning and lamentation to his heroes as though he were carrying out a long-cherished purpose. In fact, the Odyssey is simply an epilogue to the Iliad:—
There lieth Ajax the warrior wight, Achilles is there,
There is Patroclus, whose words had weight as a God
There lieth mine own dear son.
(Odyssey 3. 109–11)
It is for the same reason, I suppose, that he has made the whole structure of the Iliad, which was written at the height of his inspiration, full of action and conflict, while the Odyssey for the most part consists of narrative, as is characteristic of old age. Accordingly, in the Odyssey Homer may be likened to a sinking sun, whose grandeur remains without its intensity. He does not in the Odyssey maintain so high a pitch as in those poems of Ilium. His sublimities are not evenly sustained and free from the liability to sink; there is not the same profusion of accumulated passions, nor the supple and oratorical style, packed with images drawn from real life. You seem to see henceforth the ebb and flow of greatness, and a fancy roving in the fabulous and incredible, as though the ocean were withdrawing into itself and was being laid bare within its own confines. In saying this I have not forgotten the tempests in the Odyssey and the story of the Cyclops and the like. If I speak of old age, it is nevertheless the old age of Homer. The fabulous element, however, prevails throughout this poem over the real. The object of this digression has been, as I said, to show how easily great natures in their decline are sometimes diverted into absurdity, as in the incident of the wine-skin and of the men who were fed like swine by Circe (whining porkers, as Zoilus called them), and of Zeus like a nestling nurtured by the doves, and of the hero who was without food for ten days upon the wreck, and of the incredible tale of the slaying of the suitors (Odyssey 9. 182; 10.17; 10.237; 12.62; 12.447; 22.79.) For what else can we term these things than veritable dreams of Zeus? These observations with regard to the Odyssey should be made for another reason—in order that you may know that the genius of great poets and prose-writers, as their passion declines, finds its final expression in the delineation of character. For such are the details which Homer gives, with an eye to characterization, of life in the home of Odysseus; they form as it were a comedy of manners.