Nora Goldschmidt looks at the quest for a life behind the art.
If you want to know about the biography of a living author, all you have to do is google. You’ll almost certainly get at least one picture, a date of birth, information about where they were educated, whether they have long-term partners or children. You might find out what football team they support (Salman Rushdie likes Tottenham Hotspur), and whether they get on with their neighbours (J. K. Rowling seems to have annoyed hers when trimming her enormous garden hedge). Even an author who — like the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante — does everything they can to hide their life from public view can find themselves at the mercy of the information age. Interested readers can always chase up a trail of financial records or plug an algorithm into a computer to try to find the life behind the texts.
When it comes to the biographies of Greek and Roman authors — and especially of poets, who tended to hold no major public roles themselves — we have no tax returns, no photos, no letters, no diaries, no addresses. What we substantially have are the works they themselves left behind. Biographers in antiquity, who wrote the accounts on which modern biographies are based, had very little real evidence to go on, too. Suetonius boasted about having access to the imperial archives, where he may have got the extracts of the letters from Augustus which he quotes in his Lives of Horace and Virgil. Local stories (real or imagined) associated with the places in which the poets were said to have lived or died sometimes played a part. The odd inscription might confirm one detail or another. But essentially, ancient biographies of poets were based on whatever clues could be found in the works themselves. Homer was blind like the poet-singer Demodocus in the Odyssey; like Actaeon or Pentheus in the Bacchae, Euripides was eaten by dogs (or mauled by women, depending on which tradition you follow); Sappho, famous for poems about love and longing, killed herself for lost love; Lucretius died of the kind of madness induced by desire which he railed against in his didactic poem On the Nature of the Universe; Virgil (whose father kept bees, like the beekeeper in Georgics), loved a boy whom, according to the ancient Lives, ‘he calls Alexis in the second Eclogue’, and had his land confiscated and reinstated in a detailed copy of the narrative of Eclogues 1 and 9.
The death of Sappho as painted by Gustave Moreau (1872)
It may be that these poems provided a true reflection of their authors’ lived experience. But should we really trust what ancient poets tell us about their own lives? Adopting traditions of reading and writing imported from Greece, Roman poets, in particular, knew very well that their works were going to be read for the life of the author: they expected their readers to look for biographical clues. Many took the opportunity to construct their own posthumous biographies while they were still alive. Parts of what they said might have been true, but they also deliberately played games of hide and seek with their readers. Catullus famously told his friends Furius and Aurelius — emphasising the point with some of the most obscene language in the classical canon — not to confuse the poet with his texts (‘Every proper poet’s person should be clean, but not his poems’, nam castum esse decet pium poetam ipsum, uersiculos nihil necesse est, 16.5-6), even as the poems in his collection encouraged his readers to do precisely that. Ovid typically took things even further. On the surface, out of all the Roman poets, we seem to ‘know’ Ovid best, but in fact virtually all the detailed information about his life comes from his poetry. Even as Ovid gives his readers the biographical detail they crave — including one of the first verse autobiographies in antiquity in Tristia 4.10 — he also simultaneously undercuts the reliability of what he says. Is he telling the truth? (‘for it would be wrong to lie to you’, nec uos mihi fallere fas est , Tristia 4.10.89), or is he making it up (‘Believe me, my behaviour is different from my poems’, crede mihi, distant mores a carmine nostri, Tristia 2.353)? Poetry is not courtroom testimony (Amores 3.12.19), so where do we draw the line?
Ovid in exile as painted by Eugene Delacroix (1859)
The desire of ancient readers to know about the lives of the Roman poets — a desire which the poems themselves deliberately encouraged — never really went away. Throughout the history of the reception of Roman poetry, readers have clamoured for details of the lives of its authors. And if they couldn’t or didn’t find the information they were looking for, they used the gaps in the texts to imagine what the ancient poets’ lives might — or rather should — have been like according to their own world view. The author of a thirteenth-century poem, De vetula (‘On the Old Woman’), pretended his brand-new text was in fact Ovid’s final autobiography written in exile and only recently excavated from the poet’s long-lost tomb. Rewriting details from Ovid’s own autobiographical poetry, the medieval forger turned the Roman poet’s life into that of a reformed proto-Christian. Later, the poet Lucan, whose epic about the civil war between Pompey and Caesar which had ended the Roman republic, was re-imagined as a political revolutionary to match the content of his epic. Ancient biographies had described how Lucan committed suicide when his involvement in a conspiracy to depose the emperor Nero was found out (on one account, he died reciting lines from his own work). For later readers writing in and around periods of political revolution, Lucan’s death could be reimagined as, in itself, an act of revolution in which the poet fought to bring back the very republic whose demise his poem had lamented. On one account by the French playwright Gabriel Jean-Bapiste Legouvé (viewed on its opening night by Robespierre), Lucan even became a revolutionary soldier fighting on the battlefield for the republican cause to the resounding cry of ‘Vive le République!’. For others, like the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, who wrote part of The Death of Virgil (1945) in a Gestapo prison, the fractured relationship with the Augustan regime in Virgil’s Aeneid and the account of the poet’s relationship to the emperor in the ancient biographical tradition provided a way of processing the impact of Fascism in Europe. We are ‘now living, as it were, on the edge of a concentration camp’, Broch wrote in his own autobiographical writing, and in his novel, the dying reflections in the last eighteen hours of Virgil’s life rewrite the Roman poet as an essentially twentieth-century consciousness.
What is the difference between the ‘life’ and the ‘text’ of an ancient poet, and are we in some ways doing the same thing when we imagine the life of a flesh-and-blood author and when we read their works? When you pick up a Loeb or a translation, the text is usually prefaced with some sort of biography of the ancient author. But the dividing line between the text and the life is a lot blurrier than you might think. Whether or not we can separate the two, the process can lead to new kinds of biographical understanding. Compelled to imagine ancient poets’ lives from their works, readers from antiquity to modernity have transformed dead poets into living poets.
Nora Goldschmidt is Associate Professor of Classics at Durham University. Her recent book Afterlives of the Roman Poets: Biofiction and the Reception of Latin Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2019) traces a cultural history of the reception of Roman poetry as seen through the fictional biographies (or ‘biofictions’) of its authors.