Friday, March 30, 2018

schoolboy reading

This piece of social history came from a damp cardboard box that someone had "donated" by leaving beside the already overflowing book bank in Sainsbury's car-park in Frome. As the world switches to smartphones, books are becoming a drug on the market. The charities' hearts must sink, I realize that.

Nevertheless, the appearance of this de facto rubbish tip at the end of the car-park doesn't exactly send out a positive message. The clothes bank, likewise untended, was surrounded by damp plastic bags of garments. The shoe bank.... well, you get the idea.. At least DVDs are waterproof. More rain was on the way.

So we felt not only justified, but almost obliged, to rescue some of the more re-sellable books, with the plan of dropping them off at a charity shop in a few days, after rewarding ourselves with a quick peak at our treasures. The chief one, for me, was an informative booklet containing portraits of Scott and his circle. But now my attention has moved on to this one.

It was at one time in the library of Trinity School Croydon, an independent boys school (founded in 1882 as Whitgift Middle School) . I hope you can make out the sturdy transparent plastic that protects the cover. Because of the publishing industry's switch to paperback format and the school library's submission to altered circumstances in the form of Latin classics in translation,  every teacher who ran such a library in the 1960s/1970s must have spent an immense number of laborious hours making protective covers for their new purchases. Perhaps the teacher who bound this one, in 1965, might like to to know that it was borrowed four times in the next fifteen years, and is still in good condition (and semi-rainproof) in 2018.


As a child I took Roman history and legend rather for granted. It's more arresting to take a look at the early days of Rome now. Within just a few pages, we come to the rape of the Sabine women.

Then the great moment came; the show began, and nobody had eyes or thoughts for anything else. This was the Romans' opportunity at a given signal all the able-bodied men burst through the crowd and seized the young women. Most of the girls were the prize of whoever got hold of them first, but a few conspicuously handsome ones had been previously marked down for leading senators, and these were brought to their houses by special gangs ....

By this act of violence the fun of the festival broke up in panic. The girls' unfortunate parents made good their escape, not without bitter comments on the treachery of their hosts and heartfelt prayers to the God to whose festival they had come in all good faith in the solemnity of the occasion, only to be grossly deceived. The young women were no less indignant and as full of foreboding for the future.

Romulus, however, reassured them. Going from one to another he declared that their own parents were really to blame, in that they had been too proud to allow intermarriage with their neighbors; nevertheless, they need not fear; as married women they would share all the fortunes of Rome, all the privileges of the community, and they would be bound to their husbands by the dearest bond of all, their children. He urged them to forget their wrath and give their hearts to those to whom chance had given their bodies. Often, he said, a sense of injury yields in the end to affection, and their husbands would treat them all the more kindly in that they would try, each one of them, not only to fulfill their own part of the bargain but also to make up to their wives for the homes and parents they had lost. The men, too, played their part: they spoke honeyed words and vowed that it was passionate love which had prompted their offense. No plea can better touch a woman’s heart.

The women in course of time lost their resentment; but no sooner had they learned to accept their lot than their parents began to stir up trouble in earnest. To excite sympathy they went about dressed in mourning and pouring out their grief in tears and lamentations.

Not content with confining these demonstrations within the walls of their own towns, they marched in mass to the house of Titus Tatius the Sabine king, the greatest name in that part of the country. Official embassies, too, from various settlements, waited upon him. It seemed to the people of Caenina, Crustumium, and Antemnae, who had been involved in the trouble, that Tatius and the Sabines were unduly dilatory, so the three communities resolved to take action on their own.

Of the three, however, Crustumium and Antemnae proved too slow to satisfy the impatient wrath of their partner, with the result that the men of Caenina invaded Roman territory without any support. Scattered groups of them were doing what damage they could, when Romulus, at the head of his troops, appeared upon the scene. A few blows were enough and defeat soon taught them that angry men must also be strong, if they would achieve their purpose....

[Later the Sabines attack, and a more furious battle ensues]

This was the moment when the Sabine women, the original cause of the quarrel, played their decisive part. The dreadful situation in which they found themselves banished their natural timidity and gave them courage to intervene. With loosened hair and rent garments they braved the flying spears and thrust their way in a body between the embattled armies. They parted the angry combatants; they besought their fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other, to spare themselves the curse of shedding kindred blood. 'We are mothers now,' they cried; ‘our children are your sons - your grandsons: do not put on them the stain of parricide. If our marriage - if the relationship between you - is hateful to you, turn your anger against us. We are the cause of strife; on our account our husbands and fathers lie wounded or dead, and we would rather die ourselves than live on either widowed or orphaned.'

The effect of the appeal was immediate and profound. Silence fell and not a man moved. A moment later the rival captains stepped forward to conclude a peace. indeed, they went further: the two states were united under a single government, with Rome as the seat of power. Thus the population of Rome was doubled, and the Romans, as a gesture to the Sabines, called themselves Quirites, after the Sabine town of Cures. ...


I remember that someone informed me (I suppose I was about twelve at the time) that the "rape" described in such stories as this was not at all the same vile thing that was sometimes referred to on the six o'clock news. I was given to understand (in what vocabulary I don't recall) that it meant seizing or abducting rather than gross sexual violation.*

 I accepted that at the time, but I'm not so sure now. It was true that the Romans wanted wives rather than momentary amusements, but they certainly wanted sex and I don't suppose they deferred it. As for consent on the women's part, history does not record... I'm afraid it was considered irrelevant, like a woman's consent to marriage.

The influence of such stories on a future officer class would be profound. In warfare one would come up against rape soon enough. (I've just been reading about the mass-rapes carried out by the Red Army when they entered Berlin in 1945.) The boys would be fortified by the example of Romulus in deprecating the victim's wrath and resentment, in urbane reflections on accommodating oneself to the chances of war, and in learning the response of power to those who seek justice,  that "angry men must also be strong, if they would achieve their purpose..."

The story does tell one true thing: resentments do pass away in time, in the inextricably mixed inheritance of future generations, containing within themselves the countless genes of both criminals and victims. In fact following the death of Romulus the next king of Rome was the revered Numa Pompilius, who was a Sabine.

Numa was a man of peace, creator of the twelve-month calendar and the vital apparatus of civil religion. The story also tells us that the next king after him was Tullus Hostilius, a warmonger who thought the Romans had gone soft. Oh well.

[* My informant was correct inasmuch as this sense of "rape" as bride-seizure or just seizure was current for a while e.g. in Dryden's Cymon and Iphigenia and Pope's Rape of the Lock. Whereas, a century earlier, Marlowe and Shakespeare had meant something much closer to what we mean today.]



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