Friday, 4 May 2012

Cogita ante salis

Curtius Leaping into the Gulf - Benjamin Haydon


Suddenly, time just …. stops. It's strange. I feel how I suppose a lark's tongue feels when it's suspended in aspic and heading towards someone's gullet. They say when you're about to die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. So I should be seeing my foalhood, my first mating, my racing triumphs at the Circus Maximus. (PAUSES) But I can tell you, I'm not getting any of that. It's just a quiet moment of crystal clarity. I know it's the end of my life, and I have a long, long second for reflection.

Yes, that's me: the one with the hooves and panicked expression. He's the one wearing the false six-pack and that vague “Did I leave those honeyed dormice in the microwave?” look on his face. And we're here for the stupidest reason. Geology. A great hole opened up, right in the middle of the Forum here in Rome. Some said it was a fissure in a lake bed, others that the spot was zapped by lightning, or that it was an earthquake. I didn't get the full story. But it was clearly geological.

I know, it's a big jump (so to speak) from Earth Sciences to taking a suicidal flying leap, but then that's Romans for you. You know them – good solid chaps if you want complicated grammar, roads, sewers, giant crossbows, walls round cities. Consummate engineers. But their grasp of geology is non-existent. Take Vesuvius. Before that unfortunate Pompeii affair, they thought it was just a mountain. Duh. What about Stromboli? Etna? Didn't they know that mountains with that pointy look tend to spout fire sooner or later? Nope. When Vesuvius blew, it was all (SYLVESTER STALLONE ACCENT) “The Gaaads Are Angry” and someone had to make a grand gesture. And Roman grand gestures involve more than tendering your resignation and handing back the keys to the Senatorial washroom. When you screw up in Rome, you have to do something noble but deranged – Horatius chucking himself off the bridge in full armour, and the like.

And that comes to our present situation. Even to me, this obviously geological hole had an obvious solution: Roman engineering. Why didn't they just pour concrete down it? There must have been some left over from building the Colosseum, and a lot more than some Hibernian would hawk around villas offering to concrete their chariotways. No, to them it was another (SYLVESTER STALLONE ACCENT) “The Gaaads Are Angry” situation. And somebody had to take the rap.

They went to the usual haruspex. You know the score: messy entrails all over the place, and a totally useless answer: (ADOPTS GORMLESS VOICE) “Throw into the ravine,” they said – and I quote - “the thing that constitutes the greatest strength of the Roman people”. And you know my view by now; I prefer concrete solutions. But no, they didn't see the answer as simple as filling the thing in. It need another Grand Gesture: a GG. (WEARILY) Sorry, standard joke – we don't have many. Anyway … I was not pleased when that gesture came from him, my master, Marcus Curtius, the nice-but-dim son of the Curtius clan. You've heard of them: patricians, old money, but not a brain cell among them. Marcus not-so-bright Curtius decided that “the thing” etcetera referred to a prime specimen of Roman youth – i.e. himself.

The observant among you may have noticed the title here: Curtius leaping into the Gulf. Spot the deliberate mistake. Do you see Curtius leaping? No, muggins here is doing the leap. I knew something was up when he came to my stable in full dress uniform, looking quite nervous and talking about all our great deeds together. So I made my excuses: bad mane day, a spot of the glanders, a touch of the trots, being a little (COUGHS) hoarse. (Sorry, another standard joke). But he wasn't having it. With all due ceremony, me caparisoned to the nines, we get cheered along the Appian Way, round the Seven Hills, and into the Forum, and there we are, staring into the abyss, and it staring back at us.

He was completely out of it by then. I think on the way he'd taken a drop of (MAKES DRINKING GESTURE) … you know, to drive away any second thoughts. So it was all down to me, and duty kicked in. I am, after all, a patrician Roman horse – a true equus. It would've let the side down if I'd had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the edge, hanging on with my hooves. I struck a dignified pose, took a suitable run-up, and then we were sailing over the lip, and down and down, and I was thinking “Merda-merda-merda-merda”. And then, strangely, the terror vanished, and for an instant, everything … froze.

I could leave with you with all kinds of morals, and they're all about not getting into scrapes like this. “Never volunteer” is one. “Stupid is as stupid does” is another. But I'll settle for a good old Roman proverb: “Cogita ante salis” - “Think before you leap”.  And now it's time. Heigh-ho. The GG can't wait any longer.


Pardon the change in format, but I didn't want to waste this. It's an out-take - it wasn't accepted - that I sent in for the Exeter Royal Albert Memorial Museum Gripping Yarns project. The brief was to write a monologue inspired by an exhibit in the refurbished RAMM. It's an odd painting, and I'd never bothered to look into the background until I saw it again recently. The artist, Benjamin Haydon, was rather a sad character who was never that good, in and out of prison for debt until he finally committed suicide, botching even that (he shot himself and cut his throat).

As to the painting, ignoring all the anachronistic embroidery, it concerns the story of a depression in the Roman Forum called Lacus Curtius (the Lake of Curtius). Even the Romans seem not to have had much idea of its origin, and they had several stories. Varro recorded the rather dull one that it opened after a lightning strike, and was named after the consul Gaius Curtius Philo, who had a fence built around it. Another, from Livy, is that it was named after a Sabine leader called Mettius Curtius, who got bogged down in it with his horse during battle. A third, and the most sensational, also comes from Livy, and concerns the chasm opening, and only shutting when the gods were appeased by a noble young Roman, Marcus Curtius, riding his horse into it.

It's all in the territory of origin myth; the Marcus Curtius story is very similar to the Greek anecdote telling a similar tale about the son of King Midas). But it was the one the Romans liked best, with its story of noble patriotic sacrifice. Also, providing an extremely vivid scene, it was the one artists latched on to. A quick Google finds, just for starters ...

Marcus Curtius leaping into the gulf - Giovanni Paolo Pannini (early 1700s)
Marcus Curtius Leaping Into The Void - Eustache Le Sueur
The Death of Marcus Curtius
Pierre Joseph Celestin Francois
The Feat of Marcus Curtius, Simon de Vos
The Leap of Marcus Curtius
Jean-Léon Gérôme.
... and many, many more (see Google Images).

The one that rather tickles me (apart from the "Whoo! Look, no hands!" stance in the Simon de Vos painting) is John Leech's woodcut from Gilbert Abbott À Becket's 1852 The Comic History of Rome, which shows a fairly cheerful Curtius taking an ungainly dive into the chasm, watched by Romans who are clearly there to watch the spectacle over a slap-up picnic.

All of the Leech images are on Wikimedia Commons - Category:The Comic History of Rome - and the book itself is on the Internet Archive (ID comichistoryofro00beuoft). It's worth reading if you're into Roman history, or want to get into it painlessly, as the satirical treatment is merely a vehicle for a seriously-intended purpose. The preface:

Some explanation is perhaps due from a writer who adopts the title of Comic in relation to a subject which is ordinarily considered to be so essentially grave as that of History. Though the epithet may be thought by many inappropriate to the theme, this work has been prompted by a very serious desire to instruct those who, though willing to acquire information, seek in doing so as much amusement as possible.

It is true that professedly Comic literature has been the subject of a familiarity not unmixed with contempt on the part of a portion of the public, since that class of writing obtained the popularity which has especially attended it within the last few years ; but as whatever disrepute it has fallen into is owing entirely to its abuse, there is no reason for abandoning an attempt to make a right use of it. The title of Comic has therefore been retained in reference to this work, though the author has felt that its purport is likely to be misconceived by many, and among them not a few whose judgment he would highly esteem, who would turn away from a Comic History solely on account of its name, and without giving themselves the trouble to look into it. Those persons are, however, grievously mistaken who have imagined that in this, and in similar books from the same pen, the object has been to treat History as a mere farce, or to laugh at Truth — the aim of the writer having invariably been to expose falsehood, and to bring into merited contempt all that has been injudiciously, ignorantly, or dishonestly held up to general admiration. His method of telling a story may be objected to ; nevertheless, if he does his utmost to tell it truly, he ought not, perhaps, to be very severely criticised for adopting the style in which he feels himself most at home ; and if his opinions are found to be, in the main, such as just and sensible persons can agree with, he only asks that his views and sentiments may be estimated by what they contain, and not by any peculiarity in his mode of expressing them.

The writer of this book is animated by an earnest wish to aid, as far as he is able, in the project of combining instruction with amusement ; and he trusts he shall not be blamed for endeavouring to render such ability as he possesses available for as much as it is worth, in applying it to subjects of useful information.

Those who are not disposed to approve of his design, will perhaps give him credit for his motive ; and he may with confidence assert, that, from the care and attention he has bestowed upon this work, it will be found to form (irrespective of its claims to amuse) by no means the least compendious and correct of the histories already in existence of Rome to the end of the Commonwealth. If he has failed in justifying the application of the title of Comic to his work, he has reason to believe it will be found accurate. Though the style professes to be light, he would submit that truth does not necessarily make more impression by being conveyed through a heavy medium ; and although facts may be playfully told, it is hoped that narrative in sport may be found to constitute history in earnest. 

Gilbert Abbott À Becket's The Comic History of England, which is in the same vein, is also on the Internet Archive (ID comichistoryofen00abecuoft).

- Ray

1 comment: