My life as a television series

Consternation in the office this morning.  The coat-rack has vanished

I have offered the suggestion to my colleagues, based on intensive study of BBC’s Dr. Who, that in reality the coat-rack has not vanished.  Rather, we have all been transported to a parallel universe which is identical to our own, except for this small detail. 

Unfortunately they seem a little resistant, which is curious.  I am fairly sure that Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect would agree with my reasoning.   In Stargate SG-1 whole episodes were hung on less solid evidence.

For the moment, I will stick with the hypothesis that I am on another planet this morning.  My colleagues seem to agree with me there, which is odd given their earlier thoughts.  Most curious.


New forms of devotion in Firmicus Maternus? Or possibly not…

I’ve returned to translating Firmicus Maternus.  Part of the preparation for doing so was to get hold of the French editions and translations, and I ran one of these through a machine translator.  Working through this, I came to the following remarkable output:

 Si tu veux, libéré, suivre la lumière de l’époux, rejette tes erreurs et occupe-toi avec un zèle assidu de racheter par une religieuse dévotion les crimes de ta vie antérieure.

If you want, freely, to follow the light of the bridegroom, reject your errors and occupy yourselves with assiduous zeal to repurchase by a chocolate éclair devotion the crimes of your former life. 

How “religieuse” became “chocolate eclair” I can’t imagine!  But somehow, although inappropriate as a translation, isn’t the phrase “chocolate eclair devotion” rather an apt one?


Hannibal and king Antiochus – a story from Macrobius

Praetextatus: Hannibal of Carthage made this very cheeky jest, when he was living in exile at the court of king Antiochus.  This is what he said.

Antiochus was holding a review, on some open ground, to display the huge forces which he had mustered for war against the Roman people, and the troops were marching past, gleaming with accoutrements of silver and gold. Chariots, too, fitted with scythes were brought on to the field, elephants with towers on their backs, and cavalry with glittering reins, housings, neck chains, and trappings.

Glorying in the sight of his large and well-equipped army, the king then turned to Hannibal and said: “Do you think that all these will be enough for the Romans?” 

The Carthaginian, smiling at the king’s prettily-equipped, but cowardly and unwarlike soldiers, replied: “Yes, I believe that the Romans will find them enough, although the Romans are pretty avaricious, you know.”

There could not have been a smoother or more biting remark. The king was asking about the numbers and quality of equipment of his army; but Hannibal responded as if [the men and equipment of the army] was just loot [waiting to be collected and sold by the Romans]. 

The story is found in the Saturnalia of Macrobius, book 2, chapter 2 (Latin here thanks to Bill Thayer); and, apparently, in Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 5.5.


Cicero and Caesar in Macrobius

Servilia was Caesar’s mistress, but he was also thought to be seeing her daughter Tertia (lit. “third”). At the sales of property confiscated during the proscriptions, Servilia bought a lot of property very cheaply. Cicero said, “You’ll understand better the good price that Servilia got, if you know that Caesar was knocking off a third”. — Macrobius, Saturnalia, book 2.


Notes from the 39th century on the perils of partial evidence

Some may know that I occasionally receive scholarly papers from the 39th century.  Unfortunately it is impossible for me to reply, and consequently I see some curious errors made about 20th century America because of the limited survival of evidence to that period.

Scholars at that period write in a stylised and archaic form of English, which they understand is used in our day by the most important political and ecclesiastical figures.  This they learn from the remains of a Guide to plain English which reached them.  It is a little unfortunate that they misunderstood the thrust of some of the statements.  They call this awkward style “Gibberish”, as they understand from the Guide that this is what every politician tends to speak in public.

The paper that has come before me is incomplete, but discusses a curious feature of 20th century US society, from impeccable references. 

At this period every American citizen seems to have owned a donkey, and it seems to be understood that the animal is kept close by at all times.  There are copious references in the literature to this. 

In a ballad entitled Stone Sun, listing various pleasures, the line occurs: “I’m gonna dress my ass in the latest fashion.”  From this we learn that the donkeys were dressed in some manner, and that the status of the owner would depend on the degree to which the donkey was kept attired in the latest fashions. 

In the fragmentary play “Total Recall” by Arnold Blackegg, the line “Get your ass to Mars” appears; the hero must take the animal even in his space-craft.  It must be admitted that it is unclear how this could have been practical in the supposed space-missions of the period, and is one argument for considering all these to be fictional.

The animal was clearly very important.  In another play, the hero invites the villain scornfully to “kiss his ass”.  It must be presumed that this reflects some ceremony not otherwise known to us.  Later one of the players states his intention to “kick the ass” of someone else.  A similar idea appears in “I am going to  get medieval on his ass,” presumably indicating harmful intentions.

People of low status might sell their donkey.  Studies of the term “sell your ass” have tended to suggest that in fact outright sale was not involved, even then; but rather a rental agreement.  Only the most degraded would do this, it seems, but that it did occur is agreed by all who have written on the subject.

However archaeological examinations of American tenement blocks reveal a total lack of facilities to keep this essential animal.  Despite the lack of literary evidence, therefore, we must presume that only those who had already sold their ass could work for major corporations and live in large cities.  Whether they recovered their donkey on retirement is unknown.


An anecdote of Bishop Warburton


[James Quin, Garrick’s chief rival and a noted wit, retired from the stage at the close of the 1752 season. Warburton, whose marriage to the favourite niece of Ralph Allen (the original of Fielding’s Squire Allworthy) had accelerated his rise in the Church, and who managed to combine arrogance, self-approval, and a belief in his own omniscience with an eye to the main chance, was one of the least liked ecclesiastics of the eighteenth century.]

Mr. Warburton, about the year 1750 or 1752, being in company with Quin the player at Mr. Allen’s, near Bath, took several opportunities of being sharp upon him on the subject of his love of eating and his voluptuous life. However, in the course of the evening, he said he should be obliged to Quin for ‘a touch of his quality’, as he could never again see him on the stage. Quin said that plays were then quite out of his head; however, he believed he remembered a few lines of Pierre;1 on which he got up, and looking directly at Mr. Allen, repeated ore rotunda

                                                                Honest men
Are the soft easy cushions on which knaves
Repose and fatten.

Warburton gave him no further trouble for the rest of the evening.

1 In Otway’s Venice Preserved, Act I, lines 126-8.  Anecdote from Sir James Prior, Life of Edmond Malone . . . with Selections from his MSS. Anecdotes (1860), via J. Sutherland, The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (1975), #102, p.71.  The preceding anecdote of Lord Chesterfield is from the same source, #101.


Flushed with success – how to acquire a knowledge of the Latin poets

I knew a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time that he would not even lose that small portion of it which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained, and I recommend you to follow his example. . . . Books of science and of a grave sort must be read with continuity; but there are very many, and even very useful ones, which may be read with advantage by snatches and unconnectedly: such are all the good Latin poets, except Virgil in his Aeneid, and such are most of the modern poets, in which you will find many pieces worth reading that will not take up above seven or eight minutes. — Lord Chesterfield

The Letters of the Earl of Chesterfield to his son, ed. Charles Strachey and Annette Calthorp (1901), vol. 1, p. 192.