“A City for Sale” – Sallust’s Histories

Note: I’m continuing to repost my old Thermidor articles; this one was originally published on February 19, 2018. As usual, I’ve done only minimal editing.


When sorting through works from the Classical world, we can divide them into three broad categories of history, philosophy, and literature. The value of the latter two are plain enough; early philosophers raised questions of eternal relevance and laid the foundation for those who came later, and for the poets and dramatists, true beauty is timeless. What, though, of history? After all, history’s primary purpose is to tell us “what happened,” and we can usually get this more easily from modern historians, who can review not only the ancient historians’ works, but data from other historical documents, archaeology, etc. Obviously, if you are a historian you’ll need these early sources, but what about the lay reader?

There are, I think, three things that make ancient historians worth reading for an educated layman. First, they do cover the basic, surface-level “what happened” aspect of history. Their work is often criticised for inaccuracy, and sometimes with reason, but despite their shortcomings, biases, and lack of modern methodology, it’s worth remembering that these were intelligent men and in some cases were well aware of their own difficulties. Herodotus, for example, emphasises several times that he can only relate to the audience what he has heard, and sometimes expresses doubt about the version of events he’s been given. Plutarch says at the beginning of his biography of Theseus that, “after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off, Beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables.” Similarly, Livy, in the preface to Ab Urbe Condita, refers to “The traditions which have come down to us of what happened before the building of the city [of Rome], or before its building was contemplated,” which are “suitable rather to the fictions of poetry than to the genuine records of history.” Both Plutarch and Livy, then, are well aware that the events they describe of ancient history are dubious in many places and alert their readers to the fact, but ultimately decide that giving a highly uncertain account is better than no account at all.

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Stately Bawdiness: The Poetry of Catullus

Note: This is another old Thermidor post, originally published on January 18, 2018.


Having covered some of the great Greek poets, including Hesiod and Sappho, it’s time to move on to some of the Romans. With the Greeks, I tried to approach their literature roughly in chronological order, but here I’ll begin in the late Republic with Catullus. He’s among the Classical world’s most popular poets, at least among those who don’t have the mixed blessing of being frequently assigned to bored high schoolers like Homer, and perhaps the best way to introduce Catullus and see why is to jump right into one of his poems:

Furius and Aurelius, Catullus’ comrades,
Whether he’ll push on to furthest India
Where the shore is pounded by far-resounding
Eoan rollers,

To Hyrcania or effeminate Arabia,
The Sacians or the arrow-bearing Parthians,
Or those levels to which the seven-double
Nilus gives colour,

Or make his way across the towering Alps
To visit the memorials of great Caesar,
The Gallic Rhine, those horrible woad-painted
And world’s-end Britons –

All this, whatever the will of Heaven above
May bring, ready as you are to brave together,
Simply deliver to my girl a brief dis-
courteous message:

Farewell and long life with her adulterers,
Three hundred together, whom hugging she holds,
Loving none truly but again and again
Rupturing all’s groins;

And let her not as before expect my love,
Which by her fault has fallen like a flower
On the meadow’s margin after a passing
Ploughshare has touched it.

There’s a certain gravity or stateliness we tend to associate with just about anything written in Latin, and understandably so. Most of the books that have come down to us comprise the Roman highlight reel of Caesar and Cicero, Tacitus and Livy, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, and so on. As Latin passed out of common usage it was taken up by Medieval and Renaissance scholars, who generally used it for serious topics of philosophy, science, history, and the like.

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New at American Sun: The Things They Carried

If you have a good memory, you may recall that I published a review of Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried over at Thermidor Magazine on July 27, 2017. With Thermidor in the same condition as Old Howard, I’ve been republishing my old articles here, but for this one I’m making an exception – you can find it over at The American Sun. I think it was one of my best reviews from last year, so please give it a read, then give The Things They Carried a read.

By the way, several former Thermidor contributors were involved in starting The American Sun just a few months ago, so they’ve republished a few things lost in Thermidor’s closure. It’s off to a good start, and if you enjoyed Thermidor you’ll probably enjoy this new project, as well.

As for me, I’ll certainly follow them, but for the time being I only plan to contribute sporadically. I don’t have the time to commit to frequent contributions, since I’ve had a tough time keeping my own blog going, but I do want to help them out so I’ll be sending any future reviews that seem up their alley their way, as I did here.…

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Eighteenth Friend: Thomas Campion, “Rose-Cheeked Laura”

Today we’ll meet Mr. Thomas Campion, who was born in London in 1567 and lived to 1620. Yes, once again, there was just something about this era in English literature where it seems like every single Englishman couldn’t help but write fine poetry. Mr. Campion’s day job was physician, but he was also a songwriter and musical and literary theorist in addition to being a poet.

A few of our friends, like John Crowe Ransom, did write literary theory but we haven’t covered this much yet, so I think it may be interesting to spend a few moments looking at Mr. Campion’s Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Don’t worry, I won’t get into the nitty-gritty since even I find this type of thing a bit dry (see Aristotle). For most of the pamphlet he discusses the types of poetic metre and which are most apt for use in English, but he opens with an extended criticism of rhymed poetry.…

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The Everlasting Empire

Note: This is another repost from Thermidor Magazine, originally published on December 20, 2017. As usual, it is republished here with minimal editing.


When looking at an outline of Chinese history, one of the most striking things is the longevity of China’s imperial structure, lasting from the unification of China in 221 B.C. all the way to A.D. 1912. As far as I’m aware, the only Western state to even approach this record is the Roman Empire, beginning (to use one common starting date) in 27 B.C. and not fully collapsing until 1453. Now, China was obviously not a serene empire, as dynasties certainly did rise and fall, sometimes with anarchic periods in between these the collapse of one and rise of the next. Nonetheless, each succeeding dynasty adopted the basic structure and governing ideology of its predecessor. Not until the Twentieth Century was the imperial structure  fully destroyed and left behind. How was this possible?

That’s the question Yuri Pines seeks to answer in The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy. To start, he argues that China could  easily have broken into many smaller states, as happened in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. He points out that during the Warring States period, which lasted 453-221 B.C., the various Chinese states were not only politically disunited but had shifted away from each other culturally, as well. At this stage China resembled post-Roman Europe, where political divisions solidified into permanent cultural division and eventually into nation states. One easy, and at one time common, answer to why this worked out differently in China is geographic, but Pines rejects this explanation. “The Chinese terrain,” he says, “crisscrossed by mountain ranges […] and huge rivers, was as conducive to the emergence of small independent polities as any other part of the world, with many regions […] easily defensible against outsiders’ attacks.”

Demographics also fail to provide a satisfactory answer to Chinese unity. Pines explains, “[N]ot only did ethnic minorities continuously occupy important pockets within so-called China proper, but also the core ‘Han’ population remained highly diverse in terms of spoken language, customs, modes of life, and even religious beliefs and pantheon.” He concludes that the answer, then, is largely ideological.

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Seventeenth Friend: A. E. Housman, “Here Dead Lie We”

Today, we’ll meet Mr. Alfred Edward Housman, a popular English poet and a staple of English literature classes, so I assume that most folks are at least aware of him. He was born in 1859 and attended Oxford, but failed his final exam due to emotional turmoil, apparently due in part to struggling with homosexual desires. So, he spent ten years (1882-92) working as a clerk at the Patent Office while spending his free time studying and writing articles about Latin literature. Today that would’ve been the end of it since he didn’t have any official credentials, but those articles did gain scholarly attention and he was hired as a professor of Latin at University College, London, and later at Cambridge. His largest contribution to the Classics from there was in editing and annotating a still respected edition of Marcus Manilius’ Astronomica. He passed away in 1936.

Now, let’s set aside his academic career and look at his poetry. Most of his work is in a traditional English style, with regular metres and conservative rhyme schemes. They’re also on the pessimistic side, as in his most famous poems, “To an Athlete Dying Young” and “When I was One-and-Twenty.” One might worry that a Latinist writing in a conservative style would produce overly formal poems, but Mr. Housman is popular for good reason. His style is approachable even for general audiences and his themes are easy to relate to. For example, take a look at “To an Athlete Dying Young.”

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Anyone old enough to have been through high school will likely have known local athletes celebrated for their accomplishments, which are often soon forgotten, and those middle aged and older will have seen even famous professional athletes whom they admired when growing up now obscure and growing old. We can imagine how this may feel for the athlete itself, and it’s natural to wonder if, perhaps, it’s better in a way to die while still at the height of fame and renown.

Of course, when we’re young we assume, without much thought, that the good times will last forever. Early death is also the theme of this poem, “Here Dead Lie We,” which is a war poem:

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

This is very short, but there a few things going on. Honour is important, and it’s extremely important to young men. The first two lines, then, might have us expecting either a patriotic work lauding them for their sacrifice, or to mourn their early deaths for something ambiguous like shame and honour, for what Wilfred Own called “that old lie,” “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (from Horace, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”).

The next two lines, though, are more ambiguous than that. “Life […] is nothing much to lose.” It’s not? Even if we consider it less important than shame and honour, the reason we praise men who risk their lives, even setting aside public holidays like Veterans Day, is because life is a great deal to lose. So, did the speakers not sacrifice much after all?

Maybe, but the last line takes a very subjective turn. “But young men think it is, and we were young.” The weight of sacrifice, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder.…

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Immortal Fragments: Sappho’s Poetry

Note: This is republished from Thermidor Magazine, where it was originally posted on November 19, 2017.


When looking across the Western literary canon, it quickly appears that writing is, in a sense, a man’s game. Take a list of recommended authors from before the era of political correctness, and one generally finds only a few women represented. To take a convenient example, Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s list of essential authors from the first appendix to How to Read a Book (which includes fiction and non-fiction) has only one female author, with Jane Austen standing alone to represent her entire sex. Now, that doesn’t particularly bother me; I don’t believe that we should grade on a curve so that we can include mediocrities like Maya Angelou or Rupi Kaur on “great authors” lists. There are, however, a handful of women who even a vile Reactionary like myself will gladly give credit to. Besides Austen, works by Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others all have a space on my bookshelf.

By far the longest-standing of all of these, though, is Sappho, widely respected among the ancient Greeks themselves and ever since. When discussing her poetry, though, we quickly run into two problems. First, a minor one, is that we don’t know much for certain about her. She’s hardly unique in this, as the lives of Homer and Hesiod are also largely mysterious. For Sappho, we know that she lived on Lesbos in the early Sixth Century B.C. There are also many stories about her that may or may not be true; translator Mary Barnard’s biographical note in her edition of Sappho’s poems lists some of these:

That she was born in Mitylene, or in Eresus on the same island;
That her birth date was about 612 B.C., or earlier, or later;
That her father’s name was Scamandronymous, or Eurygus, or Simon, or Eunominus, or Euarchus, or Ecrytus, or Semus;
That her mother’s name was Cleis;
That she married a merchant of Andros, named Cercolas, and had a daughter Cleis; or, contrariwise, that Cercolas is a fictitious name, and that Cleis was not her daughter;
That Sappho herself was a prostitute; that she was not;
That, maddened by her hopeless love for Phaon, a ferryman, she threw herself from the Leucadian cliffs […]; or, contrariwise, that she died at home in bed, tended by her daughter, Cleis […];
That the girls whose names are mentioned in the poems – Anactoria, Atthis, Gongyla, Hero, Timas – were her pupils, and participants with her in the religious exercises of kallichoron Mitylene (Mitylene of the beautiful dances); or, conversely, that they were no such thing.

How much of this is true? The name “Cercolas” is almost certainly fake, the prostitution charge can safely be discarded, and the story about Phaon is also unlikely. Some of this information came via Athenian comedians, which is like writing a biography of American presidents based on Saturday Night Live skits, others are possibly legendary accretions. There is a story that she was exiled to Syracuse, which is interesting because it would indicate an involvement in political life. Also, whether she was indeed a priestess, and what her relationship was to the other people mentioned in her work, does influence how we interpret some of her poems.…

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The Wicker Man

It’s Halloween night (well, in my time zone, which is the only one that matters anyway), and when I think of Halloween, I think of Christopher Lee. I imagine that most readers will be aware that he made his name at Hammer Studios, starring in films like their Dracula series or Rasputin: The Mad Monk, and though I certainly think he was great as both Rasputin and the second-most famous Dracula (following, of course, Bela Lugosi), the film that comes to my mind first is also the one that he considered to be best he’d ever been in, The Wicker Man.

Now, The Wicker Man appears, in my observation, to be fairly well-known among horror fans, but is semi-obscure to wider audiences and what name recognition it does have comes partly from the botched remake. With that in mind, I’ll begin by offering a few observations on the film as a whole with minimal spoilers, then move into more specific remarks. I’m doing that because this is a movie where it is best to go in without knowing the ending, which has two aspects. One is the resolution to the fate of the missing girl the protagonist is searching for, and the other is the very end. Even if you already know one, I’d recommend watching the film anyway without spoiling the other.

So, the premise of this film is a classic mystery setup. Scottish Police Sergeant Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward) has received a message from the isolated island of Summerisle, stating that a girl by the name of Rowan Morrison has been missing for several months. When he arrives and begins asking the locals about the situation, he quickly finds two things. One is that, though everyone he speaks to claims not to know her, it’s soon apparent that the locals and Lord Summerisle (played by Lee), leader of the island, know more than they’re letting on. Though The Wicker Man is typically classified as a horror movie, most of it is more like a mystery or detective story; the horror elements, for the most part, are only clear in the last 1/4 or so.

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A Confucian View of History: The Book of Documents

Note: This is another old Thermidor article, originally published on October 6, 2017. As with the other reposts I’ve only done some light editing.


When beginning a study of Confucianism, the most common starting-point is the Analects of Confucius, a reasonable choice since it’s the most easily available book of the Confucian canon as well as the book most that gives us the most material from Confucius himself. When reading it, though, one quickly realises that Confucius draws a great deal of his teaching from prior sources. “A transmitter and not a maker,” he describes himself in Book VII, Chapter I of that work, “believing in and loving the ancients.” Who, then, were the ancients whose teaching he transmitted?

The sage draws from a few sources; among the most prominent is the Book of Odes, which I’ve previously discussed, a collection of poems and folk songs that fits with the emphasis the Confucians place on literature and music. The Book of Changes and Spring and Autumn Annals, respectively covering divination and history, also come up often. Finally, there’s the Book of Historical Documents, another primarily historical work. Despite having the most generic title of any book besides Aristotle’s Topics, the Documents is invaluable because it collects imperial speeches, decrees, and charges to ministers, as well as counsels given by advisers to their sovereign, many of which do appear to be contemporaneous with the reigns they describe. Exactly how many are contemporaneous is uncertain, and the ancient editors themselves indicate that the first few were later compositions by beginning them with the formula “Inquiring into antiquity, we find that…” Traditionally, much as with the other classics previously mentioned, this editorial role has been attributed to Confucius himself, and though there’s little evidence for that besides this much later tradition, his endorsement of the collection has given it a prestigious place in Chinese scholarship ever since.

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Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Even if you haven’t read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you almost certainly know the premise. The image of Jekyll and Hyde has entered the English language as an idiom right along many allusions to Scripture and Shakespeare, and it’s been adapted into other media many times. Talking about it here, then, seems almost like a waste of time; after all, it’s already one of the most famous stories in English.

Well, I’ve found that many classic books, even if they are well-known, are in reality often seldom read, so one can never assume that just because something is famous that many people are actually familiar with the original work. Besides, there are a handful of books that are more enjoyable in their adaptations than in their original form, like Dracula, I’m afraid to say. At a glance, Jekyll looks like it may fall into that category, since it’s old, everyone knows the plot twist and themes, and it’s written in a slow-paced, wordy style common in the Nineteenth Century but unpalatable to many today. So, is Jekyll still worth reading?

I’m actually not going to give an unqualified “yes,” but will say that for most people, especially if you’ve managed to avoid spoilers your whole life, will enjoy it as long as you have the patience for Stevenson’s writing style. Not that his style is bad, of course – as we’ll discuss shortly, I think it’s very good. It’s just not for everyone. It is short, though, so it’s worth a shot.…

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