Paeans from the cliffs

Suetonius recorded this theatrical incident in Caligula 57:

In a farce called “Laureolus,” in which the chief actor falls as he is making his escape and vomits blood, several understudies so vied with one another in giving evidence of their proficiency that the stage swam in blood.

Was it juice or was it real blood, and if blood, was it human? Was it a harmless trick – a sack with bovine blood hidden within and bursting open at the right moment – or did the aspiring mimes drive themselves to vomiting their own blood?

Caligula ruled from 37-41; Suetonius (b. 69? – d. after 120) described his follies from a safe temporal distance and can’t be trusted to have recorded the all details right. However, Martial (b. 38-41, d. 102-104) left more than one mention of horrible shows in Rome at a later time, under Domitian (ruled 81-96). Michael Lueger explains:

Martial also mentions a popular play about a bandit named Laureolus. Laureolus met his end by crucifixion. But, since that was a time-consuming way of killing someone, the organizers of this play decided that, once the prisoner had been hung on the cross, they would bring in a bear to speed things up… Martial was oddly celebratory about the awful sight…

Apart from this bloody “popular play,” Romans seemed to prefer murderous re-enactments of Greco-Roman myths, according to Lueger:

These deadly Roman spectacles usually involved the retelling of a familiar myth, albeit with a nasty twist at the end.

See Lueger’s article for more nasty examples from Martial. In Fatal Charades (1990), K. M. Coleman quotes Tertullian, who saw such pagan spectacles as sacrilegious (“criminals often adopt the roles of your deities”) and explains:

The practice that Tertullian here deplores is the subject of this paper: the punishment of criminals in a formal public display involving role-play set in a dramatic context; the punishment is usually capital.

Tertullian (155 – 240?), born 120 years after Martial, claimed to have witnessed at least two re-enactments of this sort. In other words, this perverse tradition lasted at least from Domician to Septimus Severus although quite possibly from an earlier time until the adoption of Christianity. At least a hundred years, and possibly several hundred. Naturally, historians speak of a certain Roman sensibility that expressed itself in this predilection for amphitheatrical gore – but had it existed since the early days of Rome or was it mostly an Imperial deviation?

Writing between 29 and 19 BC, early in Augustus’ reign, Virgil included this episode in the Aeneid (8.630):

Hard by, behold, the whirling chariots tore
Mettus asunder (would thou hadst been true,
false Alban, to thy vow!); and Tullus trailed
the traitor’s mangled corse along the hills,
the wild thorn dripping gore.

As translated by Theodore C. Williams (1908). Dryden’s 1697 version is slightly less offensive to the civilized sight:

Near this, the traitor Metius, stretch’d between
Four fiery steeds, is dragg’d along the green,
By Tullus’ doom: the brambles drink his blood,
And his torn limbs are left the vulture’s food.

This is apparently based on an ancient Roman tale; compare the version in Livy 1.28 (tr. Rev. Canon Roberts, 1905):

Thereupon two four-horse chariots were brought up, and Mettius was bound at full length to each, the horses were driven in opposite directions, carrying off parts of the body in each chariot, where the limbs had been secured by the cords. All present averted their eyes from the horrible spectacle. This is the first and last instance amongst the Romans of a punishment so regardless of humanity. Amongst other things which are the glory of Rome is this, that no nation has ever been contented with milder punishments.

The contrast between Livy’s and Virgil’s treatment couldn’t have been more striking. Livy sounds like an old American moralist: it was a barbarous deed, he admits, in the service of a just cause (punishment for disloyalty); to the honor of the nation, it hasn’t happened again. For Virgil, the dismemberment of Mettius Fufetius is an excuse to showcase his prowess at imagery by putting in the brambles drunk on the faithless man’s blood.

The two shared a chronotope, to misuse a handy term. Livy started composing his History of Rome about the same time as Virgil did the Aeneid; the poet was about a decade older than the historian; both lived through the civil wars leading to Augustus’ principate.

For a higher-quality discussion of the Mettius episode in Livy and in Virgil, see J. D. Noonan and George Connor.

Now let’s move on to Sextus Propertius, specifically to Book III, Ode 15. Born between 50 and 45 AD, Propertius was probably 20-25 years younger than Virgil. He also died much earlier – in 15 BC, a young man of 25-30 years old. In III.15, he warns his mistress against being too jealous and causing any harm to her predecessor, the poet’s first paramour. Propertius recounts the story of Dirce and Antiope: for a long time, the former had cruelly mistreated the latter until Antiope’s sons (at least one of them by Zeus/Jupiter) exacted a horrible revenge on their mother’s tormentor. In A. S. Kline’s prose translation:

Worthy old shepherd who reared Jupiter’s sons, you restored the mother to her boys, and they bound Dirce, to be dragged to death beneath the wild bull’s horns. Antiope, know Jupiter’s power: Dirce is your glory, dragged along to meet death in many places. Zethus’ fields are bloodied, and Amphion sings the Paeans from your cliffs, Aracynthus.

In Brill’s Companion to Propertius, (John) Kevin Newman calls the last sentence in the above passage barbarous:

Cruentantur later (41) is barbarous, but one may distantly compare Virgil on the punishment of Mettius Fufetius (8.642–45), for which Livy apologizes (1.28.11). Perhaps it is owed to the same Roman taste that enjoyed the mimic Laureolus (Suetonius, Cal. 57.4). Propertius is sentimental, but evidently sentiment does not exclude cruelty.

Cruentantur corresponds to bloodied. This sweeping, if tentative, generalization – “the same Roman taste” – started me writing this post. Of course “sentiment does not exclude cruelty” but how relevant are the “fatal charades” of later decades to the taste of Augustan poets?

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