Aristotle on storytelling

The latest book in Princeton’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers is advice from Aristotle to poets and dramatists. Aristotle (384-322 BC) was Plato’s most brilliant student and tutor to Alexander the Great. He is one of the great ancient thinkers, whose ideas have permeated philosophy, science and art for two thousand years, although his ideas come down to us in fragmented and diluted form. This volume takes extracts from the Poetics, an important statement of ancient aesthetics. Aristotle described all literature (and storytelling) as based in mimesis. He set out the importance of appropriate length of a story and that stories must have a beginning, middle and end. Spectacle must be subordinate to plot. Plot takes precedence over character. Conflict between allies and inside family is more compelling than that between strangers. Tragedy comes from a great man undone by weakness.

Translator and editor of this volume, Philip Freeman of Pepperdine University, explains the difficulties with Aristotle’s texts. “The Greek text of the Poetics as Aristotle wrote it consists of unpolished lecture notes, not a finished literary work like the dialogues of his teacher Plato. The text also has missing words and sentences, with other parts annotated, rearranged, and in general jumbled by copyists over the centuries more than most manuscripts from the ancient world. The result is a book that will leave even the best classical scholars at times scratching their heads in confusion.”[i]  

Aristotle’s observations on fiction have been very influential and have become the rules that one must know, even if in order to subvert them. The idea that a story needs good and bad characters, acting to change a situation and a clear conclusion seems to be one thing that scriptwriters and financiers of Marvel and DC movies, and American television series, need to re-learn. The serial nature of high-budget cinematic and televisual drama has destroyed Aristotle’s recommendation and left us with a legacy of stories designed to be unended and ever ready for disappointing (but lucrative) prequels, sequels and reboots. In an age when scriptwriters do not believe in heroes and villains – except when they have politicians to champion or decry on Twitter – the power of essential elements of storytelling need to be reinforced. The terrible comic-book action-hero stories come from writers being ignorant (or defying) the advice to make a tragedy from “a serious error in a noble kind of person”[ii].

American comedy writers need reminding that “Comedy, as we have said, is an imitation of inferior people.”[iii] The most effective comedies explore the pitiful pathos and hubris of inferior people. Curb Your Enthusiasm presents the failings of a fictional Larry David character who cannot control his resentment, selfishness and worst instincts. The writers, directors and actors in that series are clear about the central character’s inferiority without sacrificing his humanity and relatability. In all failed comedies we find an unwillingness to expose weaknesses of character or to allow those characters to ultimately fail or remain disgraced. Aristotle warns us not to go too far. “Comic characters are not cruel or vicious, but laughable […] Being laughable is a shortcoming or disgrace that doesn’t involve serious pain or destruction.”

The comedy requires the incorporation of the morality tale and that means judging and being permitted to condemn flaws and types of person. In a mass-media world that fights shy of mocking oddity and absurdity – and refuses to accept traditional descriptions of sin and flaws as valid – the moral core of comedy becomes compromised or suppressed. It is regrettable that – contrary to his ideas on tragedy – Aristotle’s thoughts on comedy are mostly lost.

The tragedy is best when compact; the epic needs a greater space of time within the story. In some ways, Aristotle goes against the current fashion. Those brought up in an age of method acting will find foreign the observation, “[T]he goal of an actor on the stage is not to imitate character. Character is instead a by-product of action. Action and plot are what a tragedy is about.” We might differ on the need for characters to explicitly state their reasoning. This falls into the trap of exposition – telling not showing. It is often more stimulating and realistic for characters to conceal motivation or reveal it indirectly and against their will contra Aristotle’s assertion “speeches in a play in which the speaker doesn’t choose or make a clear choice do not express character”. The audience reading the subtext and inferring motivation is satisfying because it demands the audience use empathy, life experience and analysis rather than simply passively absorbing.

Other sections discussion language, grammar and speech and the Greek poetic metres. There is advise for writers and critics and comparisons between art and writing. The merits of epics and tragedies are weighed. The notes are thorough and informative. As usual in series, the introduction and notes are in English; the main text is in the original language (Greek) with parallel English translation. How to Tell a Story forms a worthy addition to Princeton’s classics library.

Aristotle, Philip Freeman (trans., introduction), How to Tell a Story, Princeton University Press, 2022, cloth spine hardback, 264pp, English/Greek text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 0 691 20527 4

(c) Alexander Adams 2022

To find links to my books and writings visit

The Ancients on Farming

How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land is the latest addition to the Princeton classics library. It gathers writings by different authors. Editor and translator M.D. Usher writes, “A unifying element is provided for in the choice of selections, which focus on Greek and Roman attitudes, dispositions, and reflections on what it means to live, work, and think in a landscape.” He has focused on general arguments and discussions of the benefits of country life, as opposed to any technical information, which is to be found in instruction manuals written by the ancients. As more and more people notice the deracinating effects of urban life – crime, alienation, stress, lack of privacy, absence of trust – so the interest in rural life burgeons.

The authors selected are Hesiod, Plato, Lucretius, Varro, Horace, Longus, Columella, Pliny the Elder and others, including anonymous authors. Verse is mostly rendered as prose, though the original text is presented in metre. Short introductions and notes help to explain oblique references or backstories to these excerpts.

Hesiod writes of nature not waiting for man and that the imperatives of weather, season and growing cycle act as foe to sloth. He notes that competitive spirit pits farmer to match or exceed his neighbour, quoting the proverb, “Potter vies with potter, carpenters with their kin;/beggar rivals beggar, and bard begrudges bard.” Although he does counsel amity between neighbours. On frittering away one’s energy on distractions, Hesiod enjoins his brother:

Take these matters to heart. Do not let the Strife that delights in evil keep your heart from work while you attend hearings and gawk at disputes at assembly. If a man does not have a good year’s livelihood stored indoors, harvested in due season – Demeter’s grain, what the Earth brings forth – he has little concern for disputes and assemblies. Once you’ve sated yourself on that, go right ahead and advance your disputes and conflicts in your quest to acquire another man’s goods.

Elsewhere, Hesiod tells of eternal truths, that are just.

For such [righteous] people, the Earth produces life aplenty: in the mountains, the oak produces acorns on its branches, and bees in its trunk; their woolly sheep are weighed down, heavy with fleeces; their wives birth children that resemble their parents, and they thrive with good things all of their days. They do not embark upon ships: rather, the grain-giving land produces their crops.

Note Hesiod’s implicit criticism of itinerant merchants seeking foreign goods (the travelling traders) and his suggestion about the unfaithfulness of individuals living outside of nature’s allotted roles, which are implicitly good because they work. A man in harmony with nature prospers; his wife bears his children; he has no need to travel or trade abroad. It is the city life and foreign travel that lead to strife and imbalance between men, between husband and wife and between man and nature.   

Plato suggests (in his The Republic) how a city is organised by specialists in each field serving the community as a whole, working more efficiently and co-operatively. Virgil’s Georgics are the greatest surviving idyllic (or bucolic) odes of the Romans. His presentation of the farmer’s lot is partial. “Meanwhile, his sweet children hang upon his neck for kisses. His household is wholesome and guards its integrity. His cows come into milk with udders full, and the goat-kids grapple with one another, horns opposed, on the cheerful lea. The farmer himself observes a holiday, sprawled on the grass.” Later, Virgil has his Bacchanalian farmers throwing javelins and wrestling each other.

Horace locates the content farmer as his own man, far from controlling external influences. “Happy is he who, far away from financial affairs, works his ancestral lands, using oxen he owns, as did people of old, wholly debt-free.” He avoids war, the sea and the wiles of politicians. For the ancients, the farmer is a natural aristocrat. (Musonius Rufus declared farming was a pursuit conducive to philosophical reflection.) The farmer is detached from the mob; he is steward of the land. He must distain the vagaries of man to work at the pace of nature. He labours and his family and slaves labour beside him. He protects and feeds others in return for their loyalty and diligence. He is not elected and is deposed only when he fails in his duties as steward and provider, according to natural law. He raises his sons to follow the wisdom he learned from his father. The sons inherit because they are trained to inherit and to farm, forming a sacred chain of tradition.

Columella execrates the rise of the gentleman farmer, who owns a large farm that depends upon slave labour. The absent landlord loses touch with the reality of plants, animals and tasks entrusted to employees. He notes that the industrious wife of previous eras, who shared in the farmer’s wealth and contributed to the standing of the farmstead and the family, had fallen into indolence and luxury when the farmer becomes wealthy. “These days, however, most women are awash in luxury and idleness to such an extent that they don’t deem even the supervision of wool-making a worthy endeavor and find home-spun garments loathsome. Perversely, the clothes that please them most are those that cost a fortune, amounting almost to the value of a whole estate.”

Once again, we encounter an academic fretting over gender bias and slavery in ancient sources. One would have thought that as historians, selectors would welcome and preserve the differences of the ages recorded in ancients’ words, rather than offering propitiatory apologias. One suspects that selectors are more worried about the grumbling of progressive professors than any outcry by general readers, the latter of whom do not expect the past to mirror the concerns of today’s elites. M.D. Usher has nothing to apologise for and the ancients need no apologies proffered on their behalf. The ancients had – astonishingly – different biases to those of modern academics. Selectors and translators, let the authors speak frankly and credit readers with the judgment to evaluate their own responses to the ancients.    

Princeton University Press does us all a good service by publishing these selections and keeping the classics alive for us. How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land is a highly enjoyable selection and will be avidly read by idealistic communalists and traditional conservatives leaving for the countryside – and by all of us who wish they could do the same.  

Various, M.D. Usher (trans., intro.), How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardback, cloth spine, 272pp, Greek/Latin/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 0 691 21174 9

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit

Aristotle on Innovation

It is said that the Greeks were reluctant to innovate. The prime example given is the steam engine (aeolipile) of Hero of Alexandria. It was a steam turbine, where steam from a boiler was fed into a ball on pivots; the ball had vents for the steam, the ejection of which caused the ball to rotate. It was treated as a novelty and a feat of ingenuity but never used by the Greeks to do any practical function. Yet, when we look at the architecture and art, we can see small constant refinement in methods and tools. The changes in language and ideas over the centuries show curiosity and openness, even if the technology remained fairly stable. While scientific and philosophical ideas developed rapidly in Greece, we find evidence that innovation is different from science. Innovation is tinkering; it is the spotting of certain phenomenon and characteristics of materials or mechanisms and adapting and combining those into new machines or procedures.

The question of change applies in all fields. Innovation in the field of weaponry can allow a city to defeat another. Innovation in agriculture may lead to better harvests or the cultivation of previously unproductive land. Innovation in the way a city is governed can lead to discord and instability. Innovation in religion may lead to heresy and collapse in faithful observance. Change in itself is neither good nor bad though it may do good or bad.     

In the latest selection from the classics, published by Princeton, Armand D’Angour has selected, translated and introduced texts by Aristotle (384-322 BC), Athenaeus of Naucratis (c. C150-250 AD) and Diodorus Siculus (c. 90-30 BC).

Diodorus is quoted on Dionysius of Syracuse assembling a uniform army and attracting armourers of the highest ability. Aristotle is quoted on the subject of change, criticising the proto-socialism of Socrates and authoritarianism of Plato. He suggests that citizens be able to own personal property and guard the privacy of their families, allowing that some common property (such as land) may be shared to mutual benefit. Aristotle sets out the foundations of liberalism: “A state is not made up only of many people, but of a variety of kinds of people; a state cannot simply be constituted of similar individuals. It’s not like an alliance, whose usefulness depends simply on numbers, not on different kinds, of men.” He refutes common ownership of everything but leaves open the door to a fragmented society, where factions compete for power and favour. This extract from Aristotle’s Politics (book 2) will make interesting reading for those interested in finding a balance between common good and private autonomy.  

The most famous anecdote from Greece is of Archimedes solving the problem of how to calculate the amount of gold used in the creation of a crown. The complexity of the form (and the possibility of hollows) meant that it was difficult to ascertain how much gold had been used in the object and whether it had been adulterated with other metals. Archimedes sank into his bath and saw his body displaced water and he realised that displacement and weight could be used to determine the mass of the crown. This could then be compared to the weight of pure gold of an established volume – to be multiplied up to the volume of the crown. Any discrepancy would indicate the use of non-gold in the crown, thus revealing any deceit on the maker’s part. Comprehending the solution, Archimedes arose from the bath, yelling “Eureka!” (Gr: I have it!).

Archimedes was a naval architect. From Moschion (via Athenaeus) comes an account of Archimedes designing the Syracusia, a warship for Hieron Syracuse. “Hieron arranged for wooden pegs, belly timbers, rib timbers, and whatever material was needed for other uses come partly from Italy and partly from Sicily. He procured esparto from Spain for cables, hemp and pitch from Rhone valley, and other necessary materials from many different places.” He outlines the elaborate construction, including bronze rivets, later sheathed in lead to protect them from corrosion. Archimedes used a windlass of his own design to get the ship into the sea. The huge vessel had space for multiple levels of oarsmen, a garden, library, gymnasium, a fish tank and temple with a stone floor. The ship was a warship, and had battlements, watchtowers, grappling hooks and a baluster. An Archimedes screw was the bilge pump. Hieron gave Syracusia as a gift to Ptolemy II of Alexandria. It was the only voyage it made.   

Diodoros describes the innovative tactics that allowed the Thebans to defeat the mightiest army in Greece at the Battle of Leuctra. Due to general Epaminondas’s uneven distribution of forces in his line, the Spartan phalanx was twisted – one side advancing fast and the others held back. Out of position, the Spartans were attacked from behind, breaking their formation. “Epaminondas’s corps pursued those fleeing, cutting down in large numbers any who resisted, and gained for themselves a most glorious victory. For since they had engaged the strongest of the Greeks and, though fielding a smaller force, had miraculously overcome many times their number, they won a great reputation for their heroism. The highest praises were accorded to the general Epaminondas, who chiefly by his own valor and by his brilliant strategy had defeated in battle the hitherto invincible leaders of Hellas.”

The short introductions are handy guides and the choice provides a broad range of aspects to innovation. The quoted texts are given in English and the original Greek; the other material is in English only.

Aristotle, Armand D’Angour (trans., ed.), How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardcover cloth spine, 138pp + xxi, Greek/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 069 121 3736

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit

Ancients on Scepticism and Humour

Humour is one of the things that is difficult to judge and transmit, especially across cultures and eras. Consul, rhetorician and sceptic, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was also famed as “one of the two funniest men in history”[i]. Both in the Senate and the law court, Cicero was notorious for being hardly able to contain his wit and hold back his barbs when it would have prudent so to do.

Michael Fontaine, editor and translator of this selection of Cicero’s texts relating to humour, presents comedian Mark Saltveit’s assessment of stand-up comedy. Improvised spoken comedy is dependent on context – exploiting a mood or spiking a person’s transitory attitude – and that comic sensibility cannot be taught, even if turns of phrase, delivery, timing and so forth can be imparted and improved upon. Fontaine has gone for a deliberately broad translation (rather than a literal or detailed one) in order for us to get the mood and meaning.

Cicero wrote that he thought humour was hard to analyse and impossible to teach. He divides spoken humour into – on one hand – quips and retorts and, on the other, prepared routines. The quickness of quips dazzles and that in itself adds to the delight of listeners. “In general, our comebacks are more impressive than our unprovoked cut-downs, for two reasons: (1) the quickness of a person’s mind appears greater in a response, and (2) comebacks are indicative of good manners, since they suggest we never would’ve said anything if we hadn’t been attacked.”

In oratory, making the audience laugh is advantageous because (1) people side with you, (2) “Everyone admires a zinger”, (3) “It crushes an opponent: trips him up, ridicules him, deters him, defeats him”, (4) “It shows you that the orator himself is sophisticated, that he’s educated, urbane” and (5) “It eases hurt and breaks the tension”. He writes about adopting the manners and argot of the city or country to make a humorous point.

As for boundaries, Cicero says the only rule is “THOU SHALT TELL NO UNFUNNY JOKE”. Even deformities can the subject of ridicule, according to Cicero. The sort of humour he admires can be cruel. “When a friend was wailing that his wife had hung herself from a fig tree, the Sicilian said, “Any chance I could get a few cuttings from that tree to plant?””

His examples are – regrettably – not very funny, notwithstanding the difficulties in cultural and linguistic distance from us. “A: What are you crying for, dad? B: What, I should be singing? I just lost my case in court!” (Sound of crickets here.) I guess it’s the way you tell them.

The best is as following: “[…] Soldier, Titius, liked to kick a soccer ball around at night ad was suspected of breaking some important statues. When his friends why he hadn’t shown up for his platoon’s morning workout, Terentius Vespa quipped, “Oh, it’s okay – he said he broke an arm.”” “A: In your view, what kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto? B: A slow one.” Not bad.

How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor is not a source book for best-man speech jokes. However, it is a useful reminder that while wit – and admiration for wit – is constant, jokes are rarely as durable. Wit can also be dangerous, as Cicero found to his cost. “Cicero was hunted down and murdered twelve years after publishing this treatise […] by Mark Anthony, a politician-turned-warlord that Cicero had roasted in a merciless series of political speeches.”

Sextus Empiricus (fecit c. 200 AD) was a sceptic of the Pyrrhonist Empiric school. Sextus is an important writer because of the extensive body of his writings which not only survived but also influenced founders of the Enlightenment. Sextus followed the teachings of Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-270 BC), who supposedly travelled to India on Alexander the Great’s campaign to the Indus, where he met Buddhist and Ajñāna holy men. There are no claims to Sextus being an originator but of being a notable late exponent of Pyrrhonistic thinking, which was known for its radical scepticism in place of advocating a positive worldview. Although the Pyrrhonist school is not considered Stoic, its ataraxia (imperturbability) is a detachment common to Stoicism, Ajñāna and Buddhism.

Richard Bett has selected some of Sextus’s writings in How to Keep an Open Mind, mainly consisting of extracts from Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Sextus presented scepticism not a philosophy but as a method of questioning knowledge and received wisdom. “The skeptical ability is one that produces oppositions among things that appear and things that are thought in any way whatsoever, from which, because of the equal strength in the opposing objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgment, and after that to tranquility.”

The weakness of the setting up of a series of oppositional propositions in order to establish equilibrium is that it allows the sceptic to excuse himself from taking a qualified position in favour or opposing a proposition that has a predominance of evidence undermining it. It can become a system to insulate the sceptic from committing and – in a sense – even engaging fully. However, Sextus was aware of this trap and advised using the technique to question theories of reality and knowledge, rather than applying such analysis to matters of daily life. In a similar way, we can see Post-Modernists ignoring their own principles when it comes to living life and only applying deconstruction of language in the fields of politics, philosophy and intellectual pursuits and then only when advantageous.  

Bett offers Sextus as a model for detachment in an age of polarisation. “[…] if we don’t try to go all the way with Sextus, but still take his method seriously where we can, we may find something useful. To conclude: if Sextus can serve as a model for us, it is perhaps as a model of willingness to look at all sides of any question and not to judge things too quickly – something we could probably use more of in the present state of the world.”

Sextus outlines the method of scepticism and why it is used. “We say up to now that the skeptic’s aim is tranquility in things to do with opinion and moderate reactions in things that are forced on us.” “Arguments to Have up Your Sleeve” is a section dedicated to 15 modes or approaches that allow sceptics to undermine claims to certain knowledge. Sextus warns against inductive reasoning because it is not inclusive of all examples, which allows a degree of uncertainty about the universality of conclusions drawn from induction. Sextus provides a touchstone for the sceptical position generally in late antiquity.

As is usual in the series, extracts of text in the original language faces an English translation, with introduction, glossaries and footnotes in English. These handsome little hardbacks continue the series in a set format with attractive designs and thereby extending Princeton’s library of the ancients.  

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Michael Fontaine (ed., trans.), How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor, Princeton University Press, March 2021, hardback, cloth spine, 292pp + xxxiii, English/Latin text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6165

Sextus Empiricus, Richard Bett (trans.), How to Keep an Open Mind, Princeton University Press, April 2021, hardback, 225pp + xlviii, English/Greek text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6042

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit

Seneca on Generosity, Horace on Contentment

In the latest selections from the classics, we receive advice from the ancients regarding perennial subjects, published in Princeton’s attractive pocket-sized volumes.

Seneca the Younger (4 BC-65 AD) wrote De Beneficiis (On Benefits) around 59 AD. Stoicism can sometimes be presented as justification for aloofness and indifference. The mantra of self-reliance and resistance to the sway of emotion aligns with anti-social tendencies. These are not entirely accurate readings but easy assumptions to make. Therefore, the issue of altruism is important in Stoic ethics. Beneficiis means benefits, gifts, favour or good turn, so Romm has varied his translation of the word dependent on context, also using “giving” as a gerund when talking about the practice of bestowing benefits. This edition is extracts of the original Latin facing the English translation.

Seneca believes true giving is not transactional. Reciprocity or gratitude – although they may be forthcoming – can neither be expected or demanded. Giving is a matter of character and ethics. “Here’s the mark of great and good hearts: To seek good deeds for their own sake, and to look for good people even after meeting bad ones.” Thus knowing how to give is congruent with having a balance of outlook. Seneca recommends mindful giving, describing profligate or thoughtless giving as a loss. He warns that slights and ingratitude leave more of a mark than gratitude. Seneca is too generous in encouraging the reader to give regardless of the reception afforded the gifts. He lays the reader open to exploitation by the cynical and the political. His advice displays a certain want of discernment.  

According to Seneca’s code, generosity must be accompanied by a lack of chiding or account keeping. A gift given grudgingly is like a loaf of bread laced with stone grit. He describes instances of giving: “Alexander the Great […] was about to give a city to someone. When the man to whom he was giving it took his own measure and rejected the gift on the grounds that it would spur envy, saying it did not consort with his station, Alexander replied: “I’m not asking what’s fitting for you to get, but what’s fitting for me to give.””  

Seneca condemns ingratitude, seeing it as a moral lapse on the part of the recipient and disrespectful towards the giver. From his perspective, ingratitude is akin to sin because God gives us gifts great and small in abundance and failing to appreciate them is a failure to acknowledge our good fortune. Failure to acknowledge a worldly gift is a reflection of similar poor judgement. Giving and gratitude are marks of fellowship, a connection that separates man from the beasts and therefore an indication of man’s unique moral nature. Seneca ties giving and gratitude into a conception of cosmic order at the end of his treatise.

Romm’s moral wrangling over Seneca’s use of male pronouns is entirely redundant. Readers of good faith understand that societal expectations of ancient Rome are not those of today. In one passage, Seneca writes of deducing the correct gift for a recipient and of making errors. “We’ll at least be careful not to send any useless gifts, such as hunting gear to woman […]” Romm steps in with a footnote admonishing Seneca’s sexism. It is not a sexist statement. Worldwide, the majority of those who hunt due to necessity or pleasure are men. Seneca is correct whereas his translator is only politically correct. This book reminds us why we revere on the sages of Rome not the sagacity of Romm.

Horace (65-8 BC) was a highly esteemed poet from the court of Emperor Augustus. His poetry ranges from the lyric to satirical. He composed lyrics for state events, commissioned by Augustus, who counted Horace as a friend. This selection of odes and satires has been chosen and translated by Stephen Harrison. The original Latin texts are provided with English translation and surrounded by commentary that is generally informative, brisk and well judged. There are sections on contentment, friendship, love and death.  

How does it come about, Maecenas, that none of us can live

Content with the lot that choice has accorded or chance has cast in our way,

But rather praise those who follow different paths?

Criticism of envy was a staple of Horace, as was contentment at one’s station in life. This is a pointed counter to the entitled ingrates who defile cities and burn businesses. Carpe diem is a refrain for Horace. “Endure whatever will be! […] Harvest the present day, trust minimally in the next.” “Sweet is the hour that comes that’s not expected.”

Horace wrote a panegyric to the country life, implicitly contrasting the delights of his country villa with the heat, smell and cramped conditions of Rome. “Is the water that on city blocks strains to burst the lead piping | Purer than that which hurries along in a downward stream?” Horace advises modesty and appreciation of the simple essential pleasures of life. It is usually a person’s nature that determines their contentment rather than their material circumstances. Acquisition of riches does not lead to contentment. However, Horace was aware of criticisms that could be made against himself. He calls himself “a hog from Epicurus’s herd.”

Many poems concern Horace’s patron Maecenas, an important political advisor to the Emperor. In one poem addressed to Maecenas, Horace writes

If some force were to steal you away earlier than me,

You, one half of my soul, why should I hold back the other,

Equally dear to no one else and destined not to be whole

Should I survive you?

As it happened, Horace did die a mere two months after Maecenas’s death. On Cleopatra’s death, Horace wrote she grasped “serpents | Rough to touch, so as to drink deep | The dark venom with her body.”

As with the previous volume, the translator feels he has to excuse his subject’s ideas. “[Horace’s] commendations of Roman racial exceptionalism and Rome’s aspiration to world domination, like those of his friend Vergil, are hard to read in our times, though they were much more congenial to readers of past colonial eras.” They are not “hard to read”. What sort of trembling emotionally labile readers does Harrison expect to be shocked by discovering than that an inhabitant of ancient Rome had different views to some people today? Again, leave us to decide what it is in Horace’s writing with which we agree or disagree.

Perhaps editors at Princeton University Press should have a word with their translators and ask them to dial down their political commentary. The readership is quite informed enough to draw their own conclusions about parallels and disparities between Rome and our societies. In their quest for relevance, these translators achieve merely topicality. While their translations are robust, the commentary is sometimes partisan. It would be a shame if this overwhelmingly admirable series from Princeton were to be tainted by the label of the “politically correct classics”.

Seneca, James S. Romm (trans./intro.), How to Give, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback (cloth spine), 288pp, English/Latin, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 691 19209 3

Horace, Stephen Harrison (trans./intro.), How to be Content, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback (cloth spine), 256pp, 2 mono illus., English/Latin, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 691 18252 0

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit

How Not to Drink and Not to Rule an Empire

Princeton University Press’s series of edited classics brings two books dealing with comportment and self-control. Obsopoeus on drinking and Suetonius on the flaws of emperors are not intended as a pair but they overlap slightly. The personality flaws of emperors are present in persons of lesser status and both power and alcohol consumption encourage exposure of people’s darker sides.

Vincentius Obsopoeus (c. 1498-1539) was German humanist, who lived in Ansbach during the Reformation. He was a poet and translator, translating to and from Latin and German. De Arte Bibendi was first published in 1536. The following year a second edition was published, from which this volume is drawn. Obsopoeus was a lover of wine and his text is not admonitory, although he does offer advice about moderation and appropriate conduct. His text was criticised on moral grounds and put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Obsopoeus states “If you drink in an uneducated manner, wine will hurt you. If you’re educated about your drinking, though, wine is enjoyable and good.” He recommends drinking at home with one’s wife, where one will not be bothered and nobody will overhear one’s quips and slips. When a drinker goes out, he should choose his companions wisely. How often have we heard “Diversity is our strength”? For Obsopoeus, the opposite is true. “Harmony is rare among unequals; turmoil frequently arises from combining diversity and friendship. A sailor should drink with sailors; a soldier with soldiers, […] a drunkard with a drunkard. […] Everyone should seek out a peer that is, a person who suits them and their character – and make that person their drinking buddy.” Peers who are modest, mild-mannered, educated and dignified will not pressure you to drink and will provide necessary restraint. Beware of braggarts, belligerents, gossips, blasphemers and ex-monks.

Obsopoeus advises drinkers to be polite, relaxed, witty and deferential. Many comments seem modern, not something we would expect to read from a Reformation scholar. Avoid sex jokes and obscenity; do not gamble, spit or belch. He warns against becoming too drunk and drinking too often, though he does not give specifics. How are we to take the claim “I don’t approve of getting drunk in any circumstances”? Does he mean indiscriminate drinking or drinking to excess? Obsopoeus frames his discourse in terms of the ancient authors, Bacchus and the Muses and barely mentions Christianity, save admitting that drinking with Catholics is permissible.

On the subject of the degradation caused by alcohol, Obsopoeus takes up the simile of drunken vices as wild animals. Drunkenness is personified as a hideous hag, a terrible presentiment of the future of illness and disfigurement awaiting the drunkard.  Obsopoeus does not shy away from the suffering and indignity that alcohol can wreak upon the incautious or weak. It is in describing the drunk’s antics that Obsopoeus is at his most humorous. His depiction of binge drinking strikes one as bitingly accurate. Obsopoeus includes advice on drinking games, should the drinker find himself in such circumstances.

Michael Fontaine’s translation is freest so far in the series and is intended to be accessible. Readers will have their own responses to his decision to make iuvenes as “college kids”, “frat boys” and “kids” and his preference for “drunk” over “alcoholic”. The subject lends itself to such an informal approach. It was the correct decision to translate the original verse into prose.

* * *

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69-after 122 AD) wrote biographies of twelve consecutive emperors, starting with Julius Caesar. Suetonius’s accounts of the virtues and flaws of emperors are not wholly accurate. Romans tended to embroider tales of imperial excess as salutary examples of vice, so the stories Suetonius passed on are sometimes exaggerated or invented.

How to be a Bad Emperor includes a selection from Suetonius’s biographies made by Josiah Osgood and translated by him. The excerpts are of the vices of four emperors: Julius Cesar (100-66 BC), Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD), Caligula (12-41 AD) and Nero (37-64 AD). The salutary flaws Suetonius lists include mania for public honours (Julius Caesar, Caligula, Nero), hubris (Julius Caesar), ignoring omens (Julius Caesar), vanity (Julius Caesar, Caligula, Nero), neglect of duty (Tiberius, Caligula, Nero), sexual perversion (Tiberius, Caligula), sadism (Tiberius, Caligula), dipsomania (Tiberius), impulsivity (Caligula), paranoia (Caligula, Nero) and cowardice (Nero).

Julius Caesar’s failings were of pride, vanity and neglect rather than malice – positively minor flaws considering the vices of his successors. In the biography of Tiberius, Suetonius describes the tyranny of untrammelled authority, which we find in every era, our own included. “Not a day passed without people getting punished, not even days when public business was banned; some were put to death on New Year’s Day. Many were accused and condemned along with their children – and even by their children. It was forbidden for the relatives of those sentenced to death to mourn them. Special rewards were decreed to accusers, sometimes even to witnesses. Credence always was given to informers.”

Tiberius’s personal sadism gave licence to the sadism and vengeance of those in public positions. “Since by tradition it was forbidden for virgins to be strangled, young girls were first violated by the executioner, then strangled.” We have seen many regimes shaped in the image of their leader, where the depravity of a ruler inculcates a culture of excess at all levels of society. When, learning of a case of a visitor being tortured due to mistaken identity, Tiberius ordered him put to death for fear of him revealing his ordeal.

Caligula’s extremity is famed and well deserved. He had subjects killed in the most barbarous ways for the most minor of (actual or imagined) indirect slights, which included uttering the word “goat” in his presence. “He forced fathers to be present at the execution of their sons.” He would watch executions as entertainment whilst dining. He committed incest with his sisters. He developed a contempt and cruelty for his people as whole, wishing upon them disaster that he could master. In bouts of vengeful insecurity, he had statues of famous men destroyed. He suffered from epilepsy, which may have made him jealous of the non-afflicted. However, imperfection evinced in him no pity for the weakest and lowliest of his subjects. He was plagued with insomnia, which likely exacerbated his short temper.

Like Caligula before him, Nero considered himself a renaissance man: singer, actor, orator and sportsman. He competed in the Olympic Games, winning the laurels in chariot racing. He toured Greece to perform in front of the ancient world’s most knowledgeable audience. He locked the doors of the theatre when he performed in a move reminiscent of dictators of recent decades, who expected their audiences to applaud for minutes on end. Greed, incompetence and a lackadaisical attitude towards administration (rather than cruelty) undid Nero’s emperorship.


Both volumes include the Latin original facing the English translation. Notes and bibliography provide leads for academics and lay readers. The cloth spines and dust-jacket designs maintain the quality and stylistic unity of the series, previously covered by this reviewer.


Vincent Obsopoeus, Michael Fontaine (ed., trans, intro), How to Drink, Princeton University Press, 2020, cloth spine hardback, parallel Latin/English text, 192pp, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 6911 92147

Suetonius, Josiah Osgood (ed., trans, intro), How to be a Bad Emperor, Princeton University Press, 2020, cloth spine hardback, parallel Latin/English text, 312pp,  $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 6911 93991

© Alexander Adams 2020

To view my books and art visit


Theophrastus’s Satirical Characters


Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behaviour is a book of character sketches which describes common types that recur in perpetuity. These types survive today. Although we refuse to recognise ourselves among these characters, we all find some individuals here that we know in person. This attractive little book with new illustrations brings these eternal types to a new generation.

Tyrtamus, called Theophrastus (“divine in speech”) (c. 371-c. 287 BC) was a respected philosopher and teacher, who came from Lesbos to join Plato’s Academy, later studying with Aristotle in Athens. He became a favourite student of Aristotle. He survived the vicissitudes of Athenian politics through a combination of wits, rhetoric and popularity. His lectures drew large audiences. He went on to become a wealthy property owner – no mean feat for a foreigner with no voting rights or other entitlements of Athenian citizens. Most of his essays on grammar, ethics, history and nature are lost. His Characters has come down to us in damaged form.

The collection of comic portrait sketches is satirical, mocking the bad behaviour of Athenians, especially their venality. These were written during the immediate post-Alexandrian period, though only mention contemporary events rarely and tangentially and these types are universal rather than specific. Each description is only a page or so long. There is relatively little that is historically dependent in the text. In cases where amounts, places, people and customs are referred to there are footnotes. We pick up on the importance in Alexandrian Athens of public status, private litigation and personal money from Theophrastus’s targets and approaches.


[Image: Andre Carrilho, The Authoritarian (2018). (c) 2018 Andre Carrilho]

The Babbler is an incessant talker who bores and distracts all around him. He prevents theatre-goers from enjoying the play and diners from eating in peace. His children tease him by, at bedtime, imploring him to bore them to sleep. The Obnoxious Man exhibits his genitals in public, belches loudly and makes a nuisance of himself at the theatre in order to attract attention. He stops in at the barbershop to announce that he is on his way to get drunk. “The Distrustful Man is the sort who, when he’s sent his slave to do some shopping, sends another along to find out how much the first one spent. Though he’s carrying his money himself, he sits down every two hundred yards to count it.”[i] Theophrastus describes him getting up at night to check that the doors and windows are locked, despite the assurances of his wife.

Particularly good is the Coward, who deliberately hides his sword under the pillow in his tent, so that he has to go through the pantomime of searching for it before he can go out to battle. His terror at being at sea is genuinely comic. The Authoritarian is today’s know-nothing, offering his opinion unwanted; he is the elitist who believes he is immune to the faults he ascribes to others. Others include the Social Climber, the Charlatan, the Vulgar Man (more an inconsiderate man, readers may think), the Arrogant Man and the Slanderer. There are multiple versions of the miser – Theophrastus obviously had strong feelings on the subject of parsimony…


[Image: Andre Carrilho, The Slanderer (2018). (c) 2018 Andre Carrilho]

The illustrations by Andre Carrilho are vigorous, bold and highly stylised. Each character gets a drawing. The figures are both ancient and modern. The mixture of sweeping curves in line and shaded details used sparingly is distinctive and redolent of The New Yorker, a publication for which Carrilho has worked. The introduction is informative and the translation is very approachable whilst preserving the literal examples of obols, drachmas and agora as written by Theophrastus. The design is attractive and the binding a handsome scarlet cloth.


Theophrastus, Pamela Mensch (trans.), James Romm (introduction), Andre Carrilho (illus.), Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behaviour, Callaway, 2018, cloth hardback, $24.95, 111pp, mono illus., ISBN 978 0 935112 37 5


© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit