Saturday 19 January 2019

The Art of Flattery by L.J. Trafford

Statue of Domitian in Ephesus Museum.
Photo by Carole Raddato

Working on my current book I have been researching and reading an awful lot of Roman panegyric poetry, in particular Martial and Statius, who wrote under the emperor Domitian. Panegyric means to praise and both poets do not stint on the praising of the emperor. In fact it’s fair to say they dive right into a pool of swirling, queasily obsequious emperor adulation. However, I have a confession to make.. don’t tell anyone... please.... but I’m really starting to enjoy it as an art form. 

I’m now going to hide under a cushion with embarrassment. But before I do that, let me tell you the reasons I have begun to appreciate the court poet.

Opening Lines 

Every poem needs a hook and the court poets does not fall shy of this:

“What’s that imposing mass dominating the Latian Forum, the
colossus on its back rendering it twice the size?” Statius

I don’t know, Statius. What is it? I need to know? Tell me NOW!

“Go, locks if hair go swiftly over favourable seas”

You what? Flying hair. I must know more. Tell me NOW!

“What vast cacophony, of tough flings and solid steel, filled stony App is on
 the side that borders on the sea” 

It’s yet another riddle from Statius. I give up please tell me in extensive verse, NOW!

Martial on the overhand goes straight in with the compliment for a poem dedicated to the emperor's birthday.
If Domitian had a birthday cake he might choose
one with Vitellius on.

“O auspicious birth-day of Caesar, more sacred than that on which the conscious Ida witnessed the birth of Diotaean Jupiter, come, I pray, and prolong your duration beyond the age of Pylian Nestor, and shine ever with your present aspect or with increased brilliancy. “ 

I think he just got the attention of Emperor Domitian. Let’s face it it’s better than having happy birthday sung at you distinctly out of tune.
Here’s the opening line for a poem dedicated to hopes for an heir to Domitian: 

“Spring into light O child promised to the Trojan Iulus true scion of the gods spring into light illustrious child!” 

Martial likes to drop in the emperor's held titles into his first line. Like this one mentioning the post of censor that Domitian held. 

“Most mighty censor Prince of princes” 

Or a reminder of the name Germanicus that Domitian had adopted after triumphs in Germany

“Crete gave a great name Africa a greater to their conquerors, Metellus and Scipio, a still nobler name did Germany confer on you.” 

One can imagine (if you’re me) Domitian nodded sagely and appreciatively at these first lines. He’s totally going to listen to the rest of this poem now.
Which brings me to my second thing I secretly love about panegyric poetry. The use of florid and vastly over the top compliments.

Complimenting the Emperor 
Domitian - Face of a million flattering words

An Emperor as an absolute ruler is used to fair amount of fawning and simpering. I think we can all agree that should we become a vastly powerful and rich ruler it is the very first thing we’d insist upon. Frankly I’m not even going to respond to anyone who doesn’t first address me as The Tremendous Trafford.
I’ve spent so much time not being Emperor to waste not enjoying every aspect of it. The same was true of Domitian who had watched both his father and brother be emperor before he got the chance.
Therefore the court poets really have to work to find new and original ways of flattering a man who is flattered on an hourly basis.
See if you can hold onto your breakfast/lunch/dinner whilst reading these queasily toadying lines

“With visage calm, its radiance tempered 
By tranquil majesty; he, modestly lowering the banner 
Of his good fortune, yet a concealed beauty still shining 
In his face. So might barbarian emissaries, or unknown 
Peoples, recognise him by the sight. “ 

Rome is already indebted to you for so many triumphs, so many temples, new or rebuilt, so many spectacles, so many gods, so many cities, she owes you a still greater debt in owing to you her chastity. 

No ruler, Caesar, has Rome ever so loved before, and she could not love you more, even were she to desire it. 

Then all the gods opened wide their shrines, issuing joyful 
Portents from heaven, and Jupiter promised you, our great 
Leader, long days of youth, and as many years as his own. 

If two messengers were to invite me to dine in different heavens, the one in that of Caesar, the other in that of Jupiter, I should, even if the stars were nearer, and the palace at the greater distance, return this answer: "Seek some other who would prefer to be the guest of the Thunderer; my own Jupiter detains me upon earth." 

Put your 21st century scorning of politicians aside for a moment. Imagine you are the recipient of these verses. Imagine you are the Emperor Domitian. That’s nice isn’t it? Being told how special you are. Poets taking time and effort in composing such sentiment of your wonderfulness. Being Emperor after all can be pretty awful. Yes you get wonderful palaces, hold all the best parties and employ thousands of people dedicated to providing for your comfort/desires. But there is a downside: all those people trying to kill you or plotting to kill you or thinking about plotting to kill you. Not to forget those people who aren’t trying to kill you, plotting to kill you or thinking about plotting to kill you but might do so in future. And thus need removing. That’s got to bring the mood down. What better to lift it again than a lovely poem saying how great you are. It’s like the best appraisal you’ve ever had plus a 50% bonus. It’s bound to encourage you in your emperoring, if only to secure more impressive poems next year.

Domitian ruled for 15 years. That’s an awful lot of poetry to produce to cheer him up. That pulls on all the ingenuity of the court poet to produce new subjects worthy of praising.
This is my third reason for appreciating panegyric poems.

Inventive tackling of subject matter 

If you’re a love poet there’s an ample amount of objects/goddesses/seasons you can compare your love too. Similarly, epic poets have all of mythology to choose from with its grand themes, tortured heroes and awesome battles.
However, your court poet is faced with challenges of gargantuan scale. We’ve already seen how both Martial and Statius out do each other in new ways to praise, to flatter, to compliment the emperor.
But now we get into very tricky territory. You are to write a poem praising a new imitative of the emperor. He’s built a new palace on the Palatine Hill? No problem.
Domitian's lovely new palace
Image by Matthias Kabal

“The gods rejoice to see you installed in a palace equalling 
Their own (hasten not to ascend to the heights of the sky); 
So wide are its foundations, such is the extent of its halls, 
Wider than a spreading plain, embracing much of heaven 
Within its roof; you fill the house and weight it with your
Great genius. “ 

“Smile, Caesar, at the miraculous pyramids of Egyptian kings; let barbarian Memphis now be silent concerning her eastern monuments. How insignificant are the labours of Egypt compared to the Parrhasian palace! “ 

There’s a new statue depicting the emperor on a horse? Easy peasey.

Your chest is wide enough to bear the world’s cares, 
Temese gave all from her exhausted mines to forge it. 
A cloak hangs at your back, a broad sword protects 
Your flank, large as that blade with which Orion 
Threatens on wintry nights, and terrifies the stars. 
While your charger, matching its master’s thoughts 
And gaze, lifts its head and threatens a fierce ride, 
Mane bristling at its neck, life pulsing through its 
Shoulders, its broad flanks readied for the spur. 

Domitian ordering a new shield in the fashion of the goddess Minerva’s. Hold my stuffed dormouse while I whip this one out:

Breastplate of our lord and master, impenetrable to the arrows of the Sarmatians, and a greater defence than the hide worn by Mars among the Getae; breastplate formed of the polished hoofs of innumerable wild boars, which defies the blows even of an Aetolian spear; happy is your lot, to be permitted to touch that sacred breast, and to be warmed with the genius of our god. Go, accompany him, and may you, uninjured, earn noble triumphs, and soon restore our leader to the palm-decked toga. 

But what about more mundane actions of the emperors, such as Domitian’s morality laws which tackled amongst other abuses: adultery and the castration of free born boys. Surely there’s not much of a poem in that?!?
Well stand back because Martial has it covered:

It used to be a common sport to violate the sacred rites of marriage; a common sport to mutilate innocent males. You now forbid both, Caesar, and promote future generations, whom you desire to be born without illegitimacy. Henceforth, under your rule, there will be no such thing as a eunuch or an adulterer; while before, oh sad state of morals! the two were combined in one. 

And again:

To you, chaste prince, mighty conqueror of the Rhine, and father of the world, cities present their thanks: they will henceforth have population; it is now no longer a crime to bring infants into the world. The boy is no longer mutilated by the art of the greedy dealer, to mourn the loss of his manly rights. 

And err yes again:

The father of Italy, who but recently brought help to tender adolescence, to prevent savage lust from condemning it to a manhood of sterility, could not endure such horrors. Before this, Caesar, you were loved by boys, and youths, and old men; now infants also love you. 

What about the construction of a new road? There’s nothing august and majestic about roads. Nothing! Well maybe you couldn’t write a poem about a road, but Statius can. He gets over 1,000 words out of the subject.

Here the slow traveller gripped the swaying 
Pole of his two-wheeled cart as malignant 
Ground sucked at his wheels, here Latian 
Folk feared their journey through the plain. 
No swift passage; glutinous ruts slowed 
Tardy travel, while weary beasts crawled 
Along, under the weight of their high yoke, 
And baulked at their over-heavy burdens. 
Yet now a task, that wore away a whole 
Day, scarcely takes a couple of hours. 

He even spends time on the actual construction of the road:

The first labour was to mark out trenches, 
Carve out the sides, and by deep excavation 
Remove the earth inside. Then they filled 
The empty trenches with other matter, 
And prepared a base for the raised spine, 
So the soil was firm, lest an unstable floor 
Make a shifting bed for the paving stones; 
Then laid the road with close-set blocks 
All round, wedges densely interspersed. 
O what a host of hands work together! 

Before moving onto marvelling at improved journey times

Come then, all you peoples of the East, 
Who owe allegiance to Rome’s Emperor, 
Flow along in your unimpeded journey, 
Arrive more swiftly, you Oriental laurels! 
Nothing obstructs your wish, no delays. 
Let whoever leaves Tivoli at daybreak 
Sail the Lucrine Lake in early evening. 

A Roman Road -phwoarr look at the flagstones on that!
Image MM

Other impressive subjects covered by Statius and Martial  include:
  • That time Domitian went somewhere else for a bit and then came back. 
  • The Emperor’s lovely winter roses 
  • A measure that widened the paths in Rome which Martial very much appreciates. 
  • Domitian banning the Equestrian class from appearing on the stage. 
  • Domitian reintroducing boxing as a sport “Valour contends with the natural weapon, the hand. “ Martial.
  • That time at the Games when it snowed and the snow fell on Domitian’s face 
  • The time Statius sat near Domitian at a banquet and was just a bit excited about it: "I seem to sit with Jove among the stars, and I seem to sip Immortal nectar offered me by Trojan Ganymede’s hand. The years behind were barren; this is the first day of my Mortal span; behold, here is the true threshold of my life. Is it you I gaze at, as I sit here, sovereign of all the lands, Great father of a world conquered, dear to the gods, hope Of all mankind? Is it given to me, indeed, to look on your Face nearby at wine and board, allowed to remain seated? 
  • And a whole series on how wonderful every single one of Domitian’s staff are: "So sweet are the tempers of your courtiers, so considerate are they towards us, so much of quiet good-feeling do thev display, and so much modesty is there in their bearing. Indeed, no servant of Caesar (such is the influence of a powerful court) wears his own character----but that of his master." Martial.

Come on! It’s impressive, isn’t it? 

Embrace the panegyric. You know you want to.

You're wonderful.
You look wonderful.
Everything you do is wonderful.
Every photo of you displays your wonderfulness.
Everyone around you is wonderful because of you and your wonderfulness.
Did I mention you're wonderful?

You feel better already, don't you?

L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors Series of books.
Available here


Nancy Jardine Author said...

I definitely feel better about Statius after this fabulous blog! Thank you - Statius deserves another visit, methinks!

abigail brieson said...

That is quite the abundance of toadyness. And to think, I am happy to receive the occasional greeting card.