Last month we asked you, our readers, to bring back to life a Greek or Roman writer of your choice and to imagine what they would have to say about the Covidian chaos and misery of these recent pandemical years. We were thrilled with how many entrants took up the challenge, spread across four continents, and were amazed at how inventive and sensitive the gathered field proved to be.
To help us find a winner among such a bristling crop of (necessarily anonymised) talent was a daunting task. Luckily, the Antigone team were helped by two guest judges, whose studies and interests stretch so far and wide: Adrienne Mayor, of Stanford University, and Catharine Edwards, of Birkbeck College, University of London. Given the logistical difficulties of the times we live in, and the impossibility of conducting such high-stakes-and-security discussions remotely, we were very glad to find a convenient compromise: the hospitable setting of the Albatross Bar in Edinburgh (of the Seven Seas, that is) – just a short jog west of “Lava Field”, if you know the area.
After many days’ intense cogitation we at last determined upon a winner, although our simultaneous release of white smoke was not so welcome to the understandably capnophobic locals. It was a genuinely lovely experience to savour such skill on show. Our guest judges well summarise the situation we faced. Catharine writes:
This was such an impressive field it was really hard to choose a winner. So many entries managed both to capture the distinctive voice of a particular ancient author and to offer fresh insights into the challenges, absurdities – and sadness – of a world afflicted with Covid.
Reading these imaginative entries was an enjoyable experience, despite the melancholy subject of pandemic and isolation. So closely did the passages hew to the ancient authors’ sensibilities and styles, with wit and verve, that it was daunting to choose only one winner.
For our part, we at Antigone are extremely grateful to these two for offering their time and expertise.
OK, then, on to the results!
Our worthy winner managed to fuse Athenian philosophical debate with British political farce: in the wake of so-called Partygate, we find a new fragment of Plato’s work emerging from a hitherto unattested dialogue:
Plato: the dialogue Boris.
Personae: Socrates; Boris.
Fragmentum circa medium.
Socrates: … then would that still be so, do you suppose?
Boris: I don’t suppose it would, Socrates.
Socrates: It seems, then, that our previous idea, that the Christmas party was allowed under the prevailing regulations, must now be discarded.
Boris: I think it must.
Socrates: In that case, what shall we say now about this Christmas party and its nature?
Boris: I really can’t think, Socrates. I thought my first idea was a sure winner, but as it turned out I had got hold of the wrong thing entirely. Don’t you have some better argument for us?
Socrates: By no means. Haven’t you heard that in the matter of Christmas parties, I am no help at all, if anyone comes to me for an explanation of their legality? For though there are those who daily praise me – or perhaps, I don’t know, they slander me – by saying that ‘Socrates has all sorts of ideas, and puts them in the mind of inexperienced cabinet ministers who wish to speak well in press conferences’ – and perhaps you have heard such talk; but such people misunderstand me gravely. In fact, in this respect I am most like a lateral flow device.
Socrates: Of course. For I do not by myself come up with anything, either of those that are positive, or of those that are negative. Rather, for those that have such ideas, but cannot discern of which sort they be, I am like a prodding nasal swab, extracting their arguments; and I make them appear to their originator as they really are, whether positive or negative. But there are some who, failing to understand my nature, are irritated by my persistent swabbing, and go away inflamed.
Boris: I say, Socrates, I shan’t be like that, not if your ‘test’ can come up with an explanation for why my Christmas party was allowed. But I must admit I am quite at a loss as to what it might be.
Socrates: Well then, have a think about this. What if we supposed that the Christmas party has by some sophistry been given a misleading name, and was in fact no party, but a work event?
Boris: Yes, I think that must be right.
Socrates: Good. Now, tell me this: is wine used for sobriety, or for drunkenness?
Boris: For drunkenness, naturally.
Socrates: And cheese – is that for labour, or for rest?
Boris: Why, for rest, since Homer himself said that those who take cheese are heading back home.
Socrates: Yet that being so, we find ourselves utterly flummoxed by this ‘work’ event.
Boris: Naturally, Socrates! But do say why…
Finn Jarvis, Oxford, UK
Truly brilliant work, Finn, for which £250 falls into your lap. Do have fun with it – perhaps some could even be spent in Blackwell’s, before all changes?
Yet we were very close to awarding the prize instead to this pitch-perfect emulation of Seneca (the Younger, of course: our readers are not that odd), which very much channels the domestic tensions we find in Moral Epistles 56:
By Jove, how easily the mind is distracted! Even now, a host of noises drives me away from writing and I can barely finish a sentence. With what joy I had welcomed the lockdown! Or rather, with what serene composure. Never let your emotions be too strong, Lucilius. Heavens, what is this screaming of children from upstairs? Oh, pity your friend, my dear Lucilius. Forced to stay at home, I looked forward to countless hours of study. Ah, unhappy hopes! Can you imagine? I live in an apartment on the fourth floor. The whole block of flats is filled with sounds every hour of the day.
Here comes the stomping and panting and puffing of the fitness-maniac upstairs. He dreads getting fatter and grunts while lifting weights and running around the room. Inactivity turns whims into vital needs. The lady next door drags her whimpering dog out every hour only to leave her room. The middle-aged man downstairs who never ran in his entire life now shouts and screams that he will die, unless he gets his daily hour of outdoors sport. The misanthrope on the first floor posts on friendship and the human need for socialising. ‘We are losing the ability to socialise!’ As if the soul changed for a few weeks of isolation! Trust me, Lucilius: the wise is unperturbed by circumstances. Whoever loses friends in lockdown has locked his heart up and not only his body.
Staying at home encourages our defects. This man wears his pyjama under the tie. ‘What is the point of dressing up?’ Another binge watches the whole day. Another worries over mental health and makes up new disorders for himself. And what of cooking? We all aspire to be chefs. And here we cut and fry and make lasagne and bread and cakes. When we have stirred and shaken and burnt everything that we had at home, we sit down, stare and think of when we will be free. God knows when all this will be ended. But you, Lucilius, think only of the present. Past belongs to death and future to chance, but the wise is free from the worry of either.
Rome, March 2020
Althea Sovani, Oxford, UK
What follows are the many other efforts that impressed and entertained the judges the most. To all who are cited below, many congratulations on such clever efforts; especial plaudits are due to those marked with an asterisk, which are the work of current school pupils. It was a real privilege for us to read your talented inventions. And to those not cited here, many thanks indeed for taking the time to have a go: there was not one entry that did not make us nod, smile, gasp, or all three together.
Pliny the Younger
I was still at Misenum, where my aunt, following my uncle’s death, had taken command of the fleet and resolved to continue my instruction in rhetoric herself. Despite the catastrophe, new life was springing up, Herculaneum reopening its seaside resorts, Pompeii building a new brothel. At Oplontis commerce was unexpectedly flourishing. My aunt, upon inquiry, received the answer that a settlement had been established there of merchants from a distant eastern land. Visiting, my aunt found that these merchants, intelligent men though regarding us as barbarians, were already conducting a brisk trade in pots, lamps, gladiatorial souvenirs, tombstones, curse tablets, and combs; resolving to learn from them, she took a villa nearby, to which I accompanied her, and she was soon on friendly terms with their leader, Canningus, who revealed to her the secrets of Asclepius. My aunt, who in her youth had often heard the lectures of the celebrated Rufus, cottoned on immediately, often urging me to lay aside my Cicero for such experiments. One afternoon, however, while declaiming and waiting for my aunt and Canningus to complete their work, I became so inspired by that Roman hero that, with a sweep of my arm, I broke some glass jars Canningus had set aside. From this mischance flowed much hardship for the world, which nonetheless furnished my aunt, as you will see, with the opportunity to display not only her genius but also a noble contempt for death.
Canningus and his men having immediately fled from Oplontis, my aunt set to work on sequencing the genome of the jar’s power. Years earlier, at Rome, she had herself conceived of a new method for treating such powers, though her ideas has been overlooked and, being attracted to supernaturally prolific writers, she had been content to marry my uncle and elevate him to the admiralty. Now she applied what had formerly been scorned and saved a people by means of the thing which that people itself had not seen fit to save, namely an mRNA vaccine, which, from a certain sentimentality, she named after the departed Canningus. She herself was soon unwell. Fine food had no taste for her, and she knew neither sweet nor foul smells; like my uncle in the eruption, her breathing grew laboured. Calling me, however, she showed me her testament, in which she made me heir in the second degree and also released the patents to the Senate and the Roman people. “Dear Caius,” she said, plunging a sharp glass tube unexpectedly into my shoulder, “it is fitting that you, who were the first victim of this plague, should be the first cured.” Making me swear to complete the inoculation of Italy, she departed. And so you see, my dear Tacitus, that if I myself have made history, it is only because a great woman first made history of me.
Jack Mitchell, Halifax, Canada
Editor’s note: translation with notes by writer and adventurer Nicolas Lyon, SJ, found among unpublished papers by his widow, one-time Country Life frontispiece Lady Adelina Whyte, whom he married after leaving the Jesuit order.
…Not far from this sanctuary is a shrine to the deity DRAKOVID. This was a demi-god whose attributes are but little known in our time, but seems to have been feared throughout the world. The cult flourished, it is said, when DONALD was king in the land beyond the Hesperides, and BORIS was king of the Britons. I have heard that the children of BORIS were beyond number, but I find this incredible. At any rate, the shrine – for such it must be – included at its entrance a statue of PANAKEA. The Britons believed that she was their champion in the contest, which was renewed each winter, with the demi-god DRAKOVID. It is believed that BORIS sought to increase the gifts made to her sanctuary beyond the limits approved by his people. His trusted adviser, indeed a SAGE, advised him to ensure that the Britons did not move about and thereby invite DRAKOVID to increase his power. The SAGE’s counsels were shrouded in secrecy. At the shrine have been found many syringes, such as we use to water seedlings, and paper masks. These, it was believed, assisted in preventing illness caused by the anger of the daemonic DRAKOVID. If a person did not submit himself to wear a mask or be sprayed with a syringe, he or she would be cast out and…
…for his part EMMANUEL, king of the Gauls, decreed that those who were not syringed would be treated with excrement…some of the more barbarous regions. In Australia, it is said, no persons were permitted to enter or leave in order to prevent illness caused by DRAKOVID. When persons were determined by the auguries to have been touched by the demi-god – even if they did not experience signs of illness – they were confined, and their families also prevented from leaving their house. So terrifying was DRAKOVID to the people…
Judith Stove, Sydney, Australia
Oimoi! If only someone can get through the thick walls of my old man’s head.
In times before, I deemed my father as a faultless man.
He earned his honours in battle, thereafter, he married my mother, a chaste woman, and they had me, a healthy son.
A reputable life he had, until the pandemic.
Now, all he does is throwing a tantrum in front of the public with his old comrades! They fart at all who tells them to put masks on, and they dance, holding hands, on the medicines distributed to the crowd, spewing their saliva, singing “Go to hell! But I will not take this evil!”
In fact, he went to do just that this morning!
There he comes!
No masks, all cuddly-hugly with his old pal,
and insults anyone who dares to throw him a side glance!
I dread to talk to him nowadays, but what can I do? He is my father.
There is my house, and that son whom I wish not to be my son!
You, Machos, good luck on your trip to the market!
Show them a real man without mask!
Good day, father.
Well, what are you standing there for? Come and give your father a hug!
And take that filthy mask off!
I cannot even remember what your face looks like when you wear them every day!
I would hug you, if I didn’t have a newly born son back home, and you didn’t spend three hours rioting with other old men, exchanging the airs you lot breath out.
Absurd! To think I sent you to university for you to become like this!
I tell you again – if your old man can survive a bullet, then that disease, Cavid 20, is nothing against me!
I cannot even see the disease these four-eyed-thin-armed-long-haired-notmoving-goodfornothings are all rambling about!
I will not argue with you about that again. At any rate, if you wish to get closer to me, at least sanitise your hands with these 70% Alcohol Sanitiser.
Oh! Splendid! Give it to me!
You want a sanitiser now? That is unusual. You were never this eager to clean your hands.
Hands? Are you a fool? So much alcohol, and just to wash hands? No! I mean to drink it! I set off so early today I couldn’t even drink some water!
You can’t drink this alcohol.
Oh you useless piece of dead twig – I raised you up, and gave you everything I could, but you would not even give your father some alcohol?
No, father, you will not drink this! I will go and fetch you a bottled water.
Well, I do not need your anything now! Piss off! I will go join Machos! And this is the last thing I will give you!
[Old Man farts at Polynormals, then leaves the stage]
Clare Chang, Pretoria, South Africa
Sappho (Fragment C-19)
This, to me, seems like to a cold – a cough which
Sticks around and won’t go away – the kind that
Sits upon one’s chest, to prevent the normal
Banter and half-lewd
Chat. The viral load is in our pharyngial
Spaces, all too plainly – despite the vaccines’
Pledge to stem transfection, or else, at least, give
Pause to the swift plague’s
Speed. Alas! What Nature will send to dull one’s
Taste, and all olfactory sense, the heart must
Bear. The lungs and joints, in the same degree, must
Suffer – as Fates and
Genes have, in life’s history, made the frames and
Cells of all life labour to drive the new foes
Dull stochastic chance may dispatch to slay her –
Back, by her own strength.
Mark Willington, Cambridge, UK
(after Juvenal, Swift, Pope, and Johnson (Samuel)
O Muse! Inspire me, now that I’m desirous
To write about this damn’d coronavirus.
To tell what happened inside No.10
Let savage indignation guide my pen!
Satire’s the only way to reach the heart:
Come Juvenal, and let me use your art.
Say who decided on these strict new laws
That told us all that we must stay indoors.
Stay home! Keep distance! Hands must be kept clean,
And you must spend your days in quarantine.
No going out to meet up in the city,
But catch up ev’ry night with Sir Chris Witty.
Who can meet up? How many make a quorum?
But who made laws and then thought he’d ignor’em?
Tell, Thalia, how this nauseous hypocrite
Made laws that his own wishes didn’t fit.
While all of us in lockdown stayed inside,
He threw the garden doors out open wide.
Let’s have a party! Bring a bottle, please!
And don’t forget a decent bit of cheese.
Oh, how appropriate would it be that he
Was brought down by a warm, cheap pinot gris.
To him who said he’d have his cake and eat it
The people say, Push off, Get out, Now beat it.
He’s read some Classics, yes, or so he claims
When he was mayor at the Olympic Games.
He’ll speak in Greek, from Homer’s epic song;
But he can’t tell what’s right from what is wrong.
He acts just as he wishes, on a whim,
And thinks that laws do not apply to him.
Fibs, falsehoods, vagueness, waffle, porky pies,
Why can’t we see how much this fellow lies?
And all to gain Westminster’s highest prize.
John Bulwer, London, UK
Euripides (after the Medea)
If only the world had known exactly what was to come,
If we had known that the last time we embraced those we loved
would be the last time;
or if we had understood the dreadful ache of solitude,
or if our leaders had been granted prophetic wisdom by the mighty gods,
perhaps we could have forgone the sorrow and death,
brought to us by this evil, this disease – πάνδημος
The word which changed everything.
Our lives, everything we understood,
Everything we took for granted:
We dismissed the murmurings of a distant plague, ravaging the East,
Until it was too late.
The leaders and their selfish ways,
Ruining our youth.
They were respected; for their mistakes we made allowances,
But then their hubris grew too great for us to ignore.
The people here, even those for whom it was not common to voice their distaste publicly, renounced them;
It was their fault that we struggled,
Their fault that the elders were struck without warning, cut off from their families.
It is not described as πόλεμος –
It is described as many things: “νόσος”, “ἰός” –
But never πόλεμος,
But, I say, it was.
We are told by our great ancestors who fought in the trenches
Terrible stories about trying to save comrades
Surrounded by weapons, bodies littering the ground,
blood dripping onto the mud-splattered floor.
Our floors were not covered in blood, bodies did not litter the ground.
Instead, they lined mass graves, dug in haste,
Disposed of with as much dignity as we could muster in the cruel conditions.
The νόσος of which I speak instead left tears dripping onto the beds we leant over, desperately trying to save unknown patients;
Tears caused by the pain of missing our fathers and sons,
And the innumerable hours of untold fatigue.
They fell, one by one,
Before we swiftly wiped our eyes – we must not let the infected see our weakness; we must be strong, for them.
The silent killer: its deadly war cry, akin to that of famed Achilles,
Still rings in our ears.
Stop! Wretched sound!
We try to forget, but we cannot.
There is no forgetting.
Our rivers flow upwards,
Rain falls towards the skies above,
Animals abandon their homes, taking over our cities:
We hear cries of “nature is healing!”,
So our natural order crumbles before our eyes.
No more we’ll sing of our leaders’ glory,
We will call them naïve,
Blaming them for not acting sooner.
We will sing of science, research,
Noble doctors and nurses.
Gods, we beseech you!
Vanquish this λοιμος, carried by the wind,
A constant reminder of our fragile mortality.
What must we do to regain your favour?
Tell us what we must sacrifice to appease you.
Gone is normality,
Vanished is our hope.
We wait, impatiently, for our world to return to its former glory.
We strive for a magnificence that we cannot achieve,
For our community has forever been altered.
πανδημος – the word which changed everything.
Amy Griffiths, Norwich, UK
Editor’s Note: In this fragment from Aristophanes’ comedy The Antivaxxers, the protagonist Proiatros attends an anti-vax protest in the Athenian agora, hoping to catch COVID-19 so he can be excused from jury duty.
Silence everyone, silence. Quiet you rabble. The time for speeches is upon us. May the
most rabid of you step forward and bathe us in your spit!
One at a time now. It’s not as if we have anywhere else to be these days!
May the gods bear witness to my words. I worked for 23 years in the classroom, but now
this vaccine mandate has forced me out on my ass. I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t
even know who I am anymore. What am if I not a teacher?
[under his breath] By Zeus, you’re an asshole!
My second cousin’s friend’s ex-boyfriend’s hairdresser’s husband lost his willy after his
Pfizer booster shot. It dropped right off in the shower the very next day! My second cousin’s
friend’s ex-boyfriend’s hairdresser’s wife is devastated.
[under his breath] I bet she’s glad to have some time off!
This isn’t what our ancestors fought for. My great grandfather fought and died at the
battle of Normanby back in his day. He’d be turning in his grave if he knew what we’d become!
[under his breath] Why sir, you’re right. You are case in point.
[pointing at Proiatros] You there. You right here. The fat oaf muttering under his breath.
How rude are you? You’re talking right through the speeches, distracting everyone here. Is there
something you’d like to share with all of us?
No no, not at all, I was just muttering in furious agreement.
Chorus Member 1:
He was laughing at us!
Chorus Member 2:
He thinks we’re mugs!
Chorus Member 3:
I bet he works for big pharma!
Bring him up here!
Yeah, make him talk!
Chorus Member 1:
What does he have to say for himself?
[Proiatros tries to make a run for it, but is bustled to the front of the crowd by some
Chorus Member 2:
Come on then. Speak clearly now. What were you grumbling about?
My friends, this has all been one big mistake. Not even Euripides could invent such a
tragic misunderstanding. You see, I’m no big pharma stooge. I hate science as much as you do! I
hate it with an absolute burning, fiery, irrational passion. I’m a regular old Cleon!
I mean, sure, the vaccine may appear to be one of the safest and most revolutionary
medical treatments in the history of human history. There are plenty of people who believe that.
Good, smart, highly intelligent people. Doctors, scientists, economists – some of the best and
brightest minds in the land.
But I’m not one of them. Absolutely not. I’m one of you nutters!
What crock. Arrest him now!
Dan Crowley, Melbourne, Australia
Virgil (after the Eclogues)
A dialogue: Tityrus calls Meliboeus as he relaxes at his once neglected holiday home, away from the pressures of COVID-19. Meliboeus speaks to his anxieties of pandemic life, as Tityrus consoles him with the simple pleasures of the countryside.
You, Tityrus, below an open beech
Relax and call upon your supple device
Your friends: I, in house and home
In over-familiar bounds, am stuck even now.
Trapped at home am I; while, Tityrus, you
sit careless in the shade, and, at your tone,
your carefree conversation bid the woods resound.
Oh Meliboeus, ‘twas chance unforeseen
That gave this treat to us, so ever lucky am I,
And oft in moments of unease, will I recall
This tender time of worries unladen.
Fortune’s gift it is that, as you can see,
I lounge at large in the countryside,
And I myself can rest and laugh concern-less.
I envy not your prize, but find myself at curiosity,
Such wide disturbance fills the world.
See, sick at heart I try to persevere,
But often, Tityrus, this life is hard to lead;
For mid the illness two years now,
Normality lies in tatters bare,
Hope feels fleeting, ever fragile.
I will for time past, when doors were open,
When streets were busied, when I could learn
And laugh and work and feel and live.
But how come you have this now? Come Tityrus, tell.
Our special place, Meliboeus, far from suburban cities,
I, thoughtless, often neglected this humble home,
Lost in the racing pace of a busy world,
Forgetful of the green of trees and rushing streams
Of our home away from home.
Blessed by chance unnoticed till now,
Our simple cottage fenced with foliage,
Has become our greatest haven.
Oh, but you must have such potent freedom?
Truly, Freedom is at hand,
We must not scorn those measures,
Which keep so great a number unharmed,
But when given such a gift as I have been,
I find I must serve my own,
To feel the cool litheness of a grassy blade,
To hear raindrops meet the ground,
To see pines bend and sway in the breeze,
To smell mossy forest air.
I used to wonder, often, how,
You seemed not sad or stagnant,
Or to whence you fled from these screen-built towns.
But Tityrus, you, are truly lucky, as we stall,
To have this natural respite.
What was I to do? How else from bonds be freed,
Or otherwhere find such relief?
So, you are just lucky, you happy man,
You’ve left the lockdown gladly
And found sanctuary ample to your need!
You sit ‘mid familiar streams,
And hallowed springs, seeking the cool shade,
You, among the sweeping willow
fall to sleep by the gentle murmur of bees!
Yet here and now, before albeit shallow screen,
You might rejoice with me,
Though strange and otherworldly the outside world seems,
I lay before you, Meliboeus, the simple country,
Lofty boughs have I, rich with shining leaves,
And fecund, fertile soil, heavied with vibrant grass.
Enjoy it, Meliboeus, while you are here,
While such natural joys reach out to you.
* Toby Stepto, Newington, Australia
Homer: The End of the Trojan War
Sing Muse, tell of the dread disease that halted the long war between the Hellenes and Ilium. Tell of the different variants of Covid: The Delta; and the Omicron.
Tell of all the myriad symptoms, both long and short; trivial and deathly.
The long war ended, not with the glorious battles between heroes; no slaughter of Hector by Achilles, no slaying of Achilles with an arrow shot by Paris; no trickery from wily Odysseus. Helen, returned to Menelaus unwanted, reviled, blamed for not only bringing the long war to their shores, but also for the dreaded Covid, for the gods were surely punishing Ilium.
Covid brought the bravest Hellene fighters to their knees, retreating to their camps to wait out the pestilence in their Covid bubbles. Quiet came over the land such as had not been in the ten long years of the war. The only mortal creatures fighting on the field of battle were goats. Left alone as Covid ravaged the land, they had journeyed down from the mountains to explore the rubbish-strewn camps of the Hellenes, too weak to chase away the goats; plagued by the clashing and crashing of the fighting goat’s horns as they ran at each other fast and hard. When they had their fill of fighting, they were as drunkards, wandering in circles, unable to walk a straight line.
As Covid took life after life, the gods who had sent Apollo with his bow to strike the Hellenes down for some slight, now forgotten, became bored with the quiet. The gods abandoned the mortals to their fate, both deserved and undeserved. They held parties on Mount Olympus, resplendent with ambrosia and nectar. They revelled long into the night. Then day. Then night; continuing whilst the Hellenes sickened and died in their bubbles. The dread disease spreading to the towers of Ilium.
The summer arrived, bringing with it respite from short Covid. The long Covid took its toll on the Hellenes, bereft of taste and smell; skin complaints that itched maddeningly as if ox-eyed Hera herself had resumed the shape of a gadfly to further add to their misery. The Hellenes, between dreamless bouts of sleep, wailed to the gods to halt the maddening itching, the fall of hair which left hairless patchy gaps on their heads and in their formally resplendent beards. Brave Achilles especially felt the pain of the disfiguring rash and much thinned hair.
Thus, the Hellenes sailed away in their ships, and hidden amongst the seemingly healthy to change and infect in their homelands was the dread Covid.
Gentle Muse, cease to sing for a while. My head throbs as if grey-eyed Athene will burst out of it fully armoured as she did when her father the Thunderer Zeus swallowed her. Hypnos has come and I must sleep. I hope to wake even though my breath is so short breathing is a labour.
Sing later Muse…
Linda Stevens, Morden, Surrey, UK
Catullus (after Poem 5)
Let us live, my Gina, and let us lust,
And let us judge flouting the restrictions
To be worth the risk!
The virus advancing through many lands and over seas;
Outdoors they must keep their space,
While our impassioned embrace takes place.
Tell them a thousand lies, then another hundred,
Than another thousand, then a second hundred,
Then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have told many thousands of falsehoods,
We will weave them together
And so no one can unpick
Georgina Durant, Sevenoaks, Kent, UK
The year 2020 was to be to Boris Johnson his second year in power, when suddenly Covid began to make things disorderly, and he was revealed to be deceitful and amoral, not without the rumour that he had disposed of his dignity at a price for an illegal party. The origin and cause of the tyrannous reign of government was to be found in Boris Johnson, who was equally fumbling and sly; outwardly he was awkward and graceless, but inside he was possessed by cunning and deceitfulness, which impelled him towards scandalous behaviour and adulterous acts.
The partner of his toils, Matt Hancock, found it most simple to turn to Oliver Tress’ wife, Gina Coladangelo, in the middle of a national lockdown. He enticed her into adultery, but did not foresee the events that followed, as he was caught committing the treacherous act and the public were made aware of his crime. The general rage against Matt Hancock eventually subsided, appeased by his termination and distracted by the next demonstration of conservative corruption.
But the crime that sealed the fate of the conservative party, an illegal gathering. It began as a rumour, but the real story was later divulged to the people, leading to anger and outrage filling them (for the hypocrisy and thoughtlessness of the government upset, confused and enraged the masses). This calamity was not forgotten among the events of these fatal years, although they faced few consequences for their crimes, they never gained back the little respect they were rumoured to have previously possessed.
* Niamh Bridle, Exeter, UK
The plague crept its way through the globe suddenly, supposedly through some unknowing carriers. The sickness bore the symptoms of a vast number of other common illnesses, but this one appeared more violent in its nature and was declared to be a new type of disease. As to the question of how it could be treated, I shall leave that to those more experienced in the field of medicine, but as for it’s symptoms, it manifested itself in a persistent and violent cough, causing a sharp soreness in the throat that left discomfort well after the disease had left the body. Patients also experienced a loss of smell and taste, and thus food lost its regular appeal. It could also be noted that those suffering the sickness appeared hot to the touch, and in some cases, patients’ regular body temperatures fluctuated uncontrollably. Interestingly, a handful of sufferers avoided the common symptoms, and were thus declared the most fortunate by those who experienced the illness severely, but also the most hazardous as the sickness often went undetected in them. Many who caught the disease and recovered considered themselves immune and therefore tended to act improperly as they thought they would be unable to be infected for a second time, however this proved false.
In an attempt to halt the spread of the disease, those in charge came to a decision that the people should remain indoors and refrain from interacting with others for fear of the illness being transferred among acquaintances. As a result a general gloom was cast over mankind, with many finding alternative ways of obtaining exercise that one would usually get when able to go about daily life as normal. Since so much time was spent confined indoors, a divide sprung up among many, generally believed to be aided by those in positions of power. An increasing number of people began to disregard the existence of the plague, and instead opted to spread false claims and misinformation about the disease. It should be noted that at this time more was known about the nature of the sickness, and therefore there is little excuse in the denial of it, but some leaders, seeking political gain, sided with these people and reinforced the hysteria in the hopes that it would win them favour and votes. This corruption proved detrimental and struck fear into the hearts of many. It is also believed that a disregard for the regulations accompanied the plague, with many breaking the rules in an attempt to meet with friends and family, often placing self interest above the health of others. A factor which made matters worse was a growing impatience in the inability to go about life as normal, and an increasing number of people wished that the restraints placed on them would be lifted, but those more cautious believed it better to wait until the immediate threat of the sickness had cleared and thus another divide arose. Such are the events connected with the plague.
* Poppy Shaw, Cambridge, UK
Trajan (after Pliny Epistles 10)
My Dear Pliny,
You were right to tell me how you yourself are coping with the Corona Virus. Your personal well-being is always close to my heart. I am glad that you have found an effective method with bedsheets and frequent sailing to keep yourself clear of the contagion. May that situation long continue! You say that it has been your invariable practice, when you have discovered that someone has refused to be vaccinated, first to ask them to recant. If they then still refuse the requisite medical treatment, you order them to be flogged and crucified in a socially-distanced manner. You are quite right to do this; we must prevent – in so far as we can – the spread of this malady through the Empire. The only way to do so is to be strict in requiring absolute obedience to health policy. As you know, I have a panel of expert Greek physicians – followers of the Hippocratian School, naturally – which provides me with the latest health and sanitation advice – they also provide statistical projections of the likely spread of the virus; they predict various waves of the miasma. This council is collectively known as the ‘Questions on Wellness Advisory Council’ (‘QWAC’). It is this Council which is providing you in Bithynia with bulletins on protective measures and likewise the rest of the Empire.
You say that the number of cases has been increasing recently in the colder weather and that your doctors lack ‘personal protective equipment’. I have arranged for my secretary to send you a batch of ‘once-only use’ togas and face coverings from the Imperial Store. I regret that I cannot let you have a large consignment as supplies are limited and we have recently suffered another wave. In Rome I have instituted a ‘lock-down’ to slow the spread of the malady but the merchants complain that it affects their trade. I presently await further supplies from Gallia but there is no guarantee that they will arrive soon as the contagion is hindering production; moreover, there is demand from throughout the Empire for this equipment so I have been obliged to requisition it. If you require more equipment quickly I suggest that you try to obtain it from countries neighbouring Bithynia. A further protection which you might consider – although I am highly sceptical of its efficacy myself – is to issue citizens with ‘masks’. That is to say, coverings of cloth that they may tie over their mouths. This rather superstitious practice is all the rage in Rome! We are calling the new version of the scourge variant ‘Pi’. You should be on your guard against this in Bithynia. It is characterised by constant sneezing followed by prolonged giggling. Finally, I should inform you that our scientists believe that the existing vaccine (fermented fig juice, of course) should be effective against variant Pi. However, the more vulnerable (particularly those who are older or have other sicknesses) will need a second, or perhaps a third dose.
Roy Calcutt, Thame, Oxfordshire, UK
In the premiership of Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, it was the sixty-eighth year of an unchallenged reign for Elizabeth II when the force of disease struck the kingdom. Wretched fate had no sympathy. It did not matter whether it was wrought by the anger of the gods and the caprices of Fortune- the people suffered greatly. They were attacked by the virus unknowingly and suffocated by the poverty closing in on all sides. The malediction could often cover up itself while it spread its sufferings; it attacked the old and the weak under the guise of the young; evolving in multifarious ways in its lust for domination over mankind. Indeed, no greater calamity had befallen humanity and no greater punishment did humanity deserve.
This ailment spread from the Far East, covering the world gradually, spread by travellers, most who discarded symptoms, as is customary among men in these modern times, for those of a common cold. Their grief later added onto the consequences of sickness – a slow demise by suffocation and the death of the heart. It was only due to hard work of doctors who developed an inoculation that saved many from this unfortunate fate; such is the reason why Covid-19 has become common and regular. But amongst the tumult of confusion as befits the discovery of a new pestilence, the intellect of those in power was stunning in its ineptitude. They did nothing. That is until bodies piled up in struggling hospitals. Even when they themselves grew weary, their force of life drained by that strange sickness, they were impatient in their revelries. Taken up in blindness by their immorality, they maintained their parties and debaucheries; many came, and many went, but even more avoided. Their boldness in sin grew so much that they caroused before the funeral of the royal consort, a man loved by the people for his justice and integrity. Not only had people lost their loved ones while rulers had gained in their wealth and pleasure; and the illness of anger had spread too. The tyrannical held onto power only by seducing the nation with hopes of normality and peace. Experience recounts the death of many without memory nor remembrance. Public mourning ceased. The solicitude of friends disappeared. Such was the darkness of those times; liberty so obscured, fear so common and the scandal of the leaders so prevalent, as was revealed two years later.
* Russell Kwok, Radley, UK
Catullus the student comments on his time in quarantine and the occasion when he incurred the wrath of the goddess Corona (based mainly on Poem 44).
Oh, tiny place of mine, whether you’re called
“the urban outskirts” or “the middle of nowhere”,
I am still grateful that in your recess
I can wait out the dreadful cough and chill I feel,
Corona’s baleful gift, quite undeserved
that I have caught, being Sestius’ guest last night,
At a lavish dinner. First, I thought my chills
And coughing came from reading some terrible rhymes,
a poetaster’s awful work which gives
a chilling illness and persisting cough to those
who can tell a true poet from a fraud,
and yet still risk the Muses’ friendship, reading shit.
Alas, it was not so! The goddess came.
The vengeful mistress who punishes the unmasked,
Hygiea’s foe, Corona, Salus’ bane.
Had I not offered at the altars of Vaccine,
I’d fear the Orcus road of no return!
Now that I’ve fled to your embrace, my darling room,
I have ten days to wait out the disease,
Away from company and sight of mortal men.
My poet friends, send me some charming rhymes
To give some taste to solitary quarantine.
Aleksandra Klęczar, Kraków, Poland
Homer: Odysseus on the Plague-struck Island
Inspired by Odyssey Book 9 (trans. Richmond Lattimore), and Iliad Book 1 (trans. E. V. Rieu).
Then resourceful Odysseus began to speak and in sorrow said:
“I think there is no occasion accomplished that is more pleasant
than when festivity holds sway and feasters up and down
the houses are sitting in order at wine-laden tables
Such a gathering as this I have not seen for many months,
But come now, I am Odysseus son of Laertes and I
shall tell you of the troubles Zeus imposed on me on the voyage
to my home in sunny Ithaka. From Ilion the wind took
me and drove me ashore at Naxos in the Cyclades,
on whose people Apollo with his arrows had turned his fury.
Night and day the mighty plague-god shot his silver arrows and
soon there were none who did not fear the terrifying twang of
that fearful bow. The king sent out for a prophet, in an idea
brought on by fair-eyed Ariadne in her concern for the
destruction she was witnessing, to find out why Phoebus Apollo
was so angered and discover what it is that must be done.
‘Calchas, son of Thestor, the foremost prophet among my men,
stepped forward in sorrow, bowed and began mournfully to speak:
‘Oh great King, you ask me to account for the anger of the
plague-god Apollo and I will do so. He has found no failure
in your rites but this island has insulted his priest, strong Theseus.
When fair-eyed Ariadne, his bride, was found here on your
sandy beaches you kept her here, engaged to the wine-god
Dionysus. He will not release you from this loathsome plague
until you return the fair-eyed girl back to her beloved.’
Then the king did call a council, to consult with the noblemen
and decide what must be done, and then he poured out prayers to the
wine-god Dionysus, the protector of Naxos in the
Cyclades, saying ‘Hear me, oh Lord Dionysus, god of
the grape-harvest. You have blessed our island with wine and music
and dancing. We shall not yield your fair-eyed Ariadne to
the plague-god, rather we shall keep her here within our safe shores.
And we shall change our ways to shield us from the silver arrows
which rain on us from the seat of Apollo, the plague-god, until
his anger abates. This we pledge upon Corona, the crowning
wreath of Ariadne, that was gifted her on your wedding day’.
So he spoke and at once he signed new laws whereby festivals
and feasts were no longer to be had, whereby singing together
and dancing were no longer to be seen, whereby the ancient
customs of guest-friendship would no longer be upheld. And I
Odysseus, student of crafty designs, was thus held upon
this plague-struck island for two long years, unable to depart.
And fair-eyed Ariadne, when she saw the lonely misery
of the Naxos people, set her Corona wedding wreath in
the heavens, where its fiery gold shines still, in long timeless
memory of the living, love and liberties they had lost.
Jonathan Barr, Redhill, Surrey, UK
I cannot tell you how many times a day I find myself longing for your gentle embrace and sweet kisses. When we emerge from this sordid affair of lockdown, I shall demand from you many thousands of kisses – kisses upon kisses; as many as the number of lateral flow COVID tests on which ominously form a red second line at this very second, as many indignant tuts which follow you in public as you emit even the most suppressed cough, as many incessant Prime Minister briefings we will be forced to endure throughout this cursed pandemic. Even the sunsets that outline my windows with deep magenta and passionate cerise, which the birds admire, and the foxes and squirrels of the streets marvel at, are nothing without your glance. For how much longer must we be apart, dear girl?
The monotony, the tedium, of life without you! – consisting solely of mind-numbing Netflix shows, and odd little zoom calls with my friends (did you know that my Varus has a new girl? She logged on as well, not an unattractive little thing, but unfortunately in possession of a most insolent and shameful character) . Your mad Catullus completed a workout from the raved-about Joe Wicks yesterday. The jumping up and down like an imitation of the sacred priests of Mars caused the quivering legs of the bed, table and chairs of my poor little room to leap and hop around as if they were trying to escape this callous confinement. Oh, wretched Catullus! Pull yourself together, and act like a proper man. You are one of billions in the same situation. As many shrivelling blades of grass I can glimpse in the park-lette outside of my window as people are suffering under the same constrictions as I.
Yet, after the coma of occasional online shopping, the odd absent minded film, the half-hearted text, the technological world has blinked and surfaced as fully as a horse emerging from a river and violently shaking its mane. Tell me, my Lesbia, do you too stare unblinking into the lifeless depths of a cold machine? Does your laptop govern you too with its never-ending meetings with insufferable people? Has your entire life been transferred onto a lifeless screen as quickly as a sparrow pecks your taunting finger? Needy Catullus has begun to drown in the insufficiency of life without you, which is comparable to a life devoid of purpose or pleasure.
Oh, Tiger King, wash yourself down the murky swill of the gutter. Oh, Banana bread, you contriving and altogether tasteless little piece of junk, squander yourself in your own miserly ground cinnamon and baking power. Oh, Zoom, you perverted and manipulative instrument, which once we celebrated for efficiency but which we now condemn for binding us to our own godforsaken desks – be incited to dust. All you slanderous messengers of boredom, misery, loneliness. Expel yourselves from the gloomy room of Catullus, where he has spent the past month rotting!
* Marnie McPartland, London, UK
There is no period in the glorious history of Rome funnier than this. Finally, we are seeing desperate Roman doctors wanting to save patients because it will also save their lives. We are also seeing merchants wanting to sell their products cheaper rather than more expensive, as always happens at the slightest sign of crisis in the Temple of Janus. The theatrical comedies were suspended, but that didn’t stop the people from laughing at the Emperor. He is also trapped at home in fear of an unseen enemy. Flamines from Jupiter and Mars can get animals to sacrifice, but for fear of losing their credibility they refuse to interpret the signs in their viscera. Is this invisible enemy more powerful than the gods? What can we mortals do? The Sibylline Books were consulted, but scholars came to the conclusion that the correct predictions and recommendations of the Sibyl of Cumae lay in those texts which were destroyed because Tarquinius refused to pay the required price. You can still see Stoic philosophers mulling over their imprecations in the Forum, but as they always do it at this point, no one really pays attention to what they do. Some say – this can only be gossip, and therefore factual truth – that Scipio Africanus’ tomb was invaded by a patient. He was convinced by a Greek mystic that he would be cured if he slept naked in the embrace of a great and victorious Roman general. I don’t know if this treatment is recommendable and effective, but I know that no brave Roman had the courage to go and bring that sick man out of the tomb of Hannibal’s mortal enemy. When the mysterious illness disappears and Rome returns to normal, someone will have to do it. But I am afraid that no one will be sure to distinguish Scipio Africanus’ skull from the sick one he cured.
Fabio de Oliveiro, São Paulo, Brazil
We would also like to mention three entries, each brilliant efforts for different reasons, which managed to approach the challenge in ways that we did not expect, by giving life those who have not had much of say in literature hitherto. Thank you for such skilful and imaginative creations!
The Reflections of Mrs Catullus
I watch, as half of my malted milk falls in to my tea cup.
Slowly, at first, each crumb at a time. Then quick and sudden like the snap of a finger, drops of brown spilling on to the saucer and the tablecloth that needs a wash.
I neither blink nor smile. I nibble on the inside of my cheek and pull at the tiny hairs above my top lip while Catullus snores on the sofa, his big toe poking out from the left-hand side of the blanket.
I try to remember the last time something moved me. When I instinctively clapped, cackled or wept, felt the blood rush to my face and out of quivering fingers. When I felt unwanted, curious flutters in my breast, my stomach, my vulva. When even the submersion of a sodden biscuit would elicit a hand to the heart for something lost.
I stir the cooling tea with my index finger but continue to stare straight ahead at his curling lip between outward breaths. As the sun descends, the shadow of my forearm moves further across the blue walls and my reflection in the glass frame of the microwave door dances in and out of focus. The only indication that time is passing in the same way it used to.
A sparrow sits on the windowsill and cocks its little head as though it has known my despondency. I long to cuddle it, tease it, play it with, let it become a companion of my pain. Instead, I watch it through the window and offer only what I can while my world is contained in these four walls: I stretch my ears out to the side and puff my cheeks up with a deep breath before letting it all go and fogging up the glass. The sparrow flies away.
Later, I spit my toothpaste in to the bathroom sink and think, as it coagulates beside the plug hole, that it looks just like a dolphin that washed up on our beach. The blue and white, the dismembered fin. I remember how I chased away a dog that played with its broken leftovers, shaking the sea salted meat like a bartender mixing a drink. His owner laughed and I sank to my knees in despair at the rotting world.
Oh wretched Catullus, you should stop fooling and what you know you’ve lost, admit losing, or at the very least, wake the fuck up and help me make our tea.
Matilda Neill, Manchester, UK
A piece from a play discovered and attributed to Virgil, in which all three of Aeneas’ wives discuss him.
Girls, girls, and another thing, he was a total bastard the way he just left me to die in Troy, he practically ran away. I was trampled on, couldn’t move, then burned alive in a great fire. Horrible. Funny how he managed to carry his father away. Hope he ends up in the worst bit of Hades. He won’t see me for dust.
I getcha Creusa, he left me high ‘n dry too, mysogynistic B! And to think I went and shoved his sword into my belly, and burned myself to death over that one. If I had my life all over again, I’d send him packing as soon as he started spouting all that Italy BS. Man with a mission, well he’s had his comeuppance, thought he always knew best. Not this time. Ha! An antivaxxer, what a joke, never did listen to sense. Let him stew in Hades on his lonesome, no one will go near him, not even with a mask. We’re already dead and still scared of the damn plague. Better the Hades that you know and all that. I’m quite settled here with you lot now, we have great fun, no responsibilities, no childcare, no political duties. I love our book group, getting right into this retelling of Odysseus as a female. She certainly got through the journey lickety-split.
His bloody anti-vax nonsense got me killed too. Idiot. And idiot me for listening to him. He was so persuasive, he could’ve sold sunshine to the Italians, I mean he kinda sold us our own country if you think about it. And then he became a head honcho, plus got me thrown into the bargain. Don’t believe all that mild-mannered stuff about him, he knew fine well what he was up to. Everything in control was our Aeneas, all with that angelic smile on his face, meanwhile he’s stabbing you in the back. Same with women, love-bombing it’s called. All over you one minute, the next he’s nowhere to be seen. Well I’m glad he’s dead, serves him right. He’ll not like it where they’re putting him, all on his lonesome with no one to boss around. Right ladies, pass the vino, ‘nuff veritas.
Lisa Manus, Glasgow, UK
An antique lacunose manuscript recently discovered in the public archives of the great Northern city of Sheffield, once known to the ancients as Esca(feld), tells the story of a notorious plague that long ago, laid low that fair town. Written by an erudite scholar of the time in an elegant hand, it uses both the learned languages and begins thus: τὸν θάνατον τί φοβεῖσθε; Quid mortem timetis? Why do you fear death? Cur subito palles audito nomine mortis? Why do you grow pale at the name of death?…
[There follows a considerable lacuna in the text before our author continues with a description of conditions in the city when the pandemic was raging.]
“…Such a death bringing contagion once struck down the noble city of Esca, made the roads a desert, and drained the city of men. The hearts of the citizens were chilled. As when men roam like lifeless ghosts through a city, awaiting the outbreak of war or plague, or when statues sweat spontaneously and run with blood, and unearthly sounds are heard in sacred precincts, or when at midday the sun brings on night and the stars shine brightly through the ether—so at that time did the people of Esca trudge aimlessly along their daily routes, solemnly acknowledging the greetings of their fellow citizens but masked against the pestilence that might strike them down…”
[Another gap in the manuscript follows before the learned poet describes the symptoms of the afflicted.]
“The head burning with heat, the eyes suffused with fire beneath… the tongue, mind’s interpreter… weakened by pain, heavy in motion, rough to the touch. When the disease filled the chest of the sufferers and flooded into their sorrowful minds, then indeed the barriers of life were almost breached… These unbearable sufferings brought with them tormenting anxiety and moaning laments.”
[Another break in the narrative, and when the text resumes, the consequences of the plague are under discussion.]
“This was the heaviest cause of mortality… if they were restrained by fear from visiting one another, the sick perished without care, so that many houses were left empty… if, on the other hand, they visited the sick, they perished nonetheless… there were those who longed to visit their friends. It was those who had recovered who had pity for the dying and the sick, because they had learnt what it meant to survive and perhaps gain some degree of immunity.”
[Then the gods send a sign to the narrator and perhaps all is saved.]
“Before my eyes the same oak-tree seemed to stand, with many creatures on its branches… scattered on the ground below… grow larger and ever larger, raising themselves from the ground and standing with form erect… taking on human limbs and a human form. Then sleep departed.”
Peter Hulse, Nottingham, UK
Whew! So much Classics-inspired talent on one page. We hope, like us, you enjoyed working your way through it. Our next competition will swing round at the end of our fifth trimester (what we’re up to on this site has a substantial gestation period) in April. Perhaps something musical?
|⇧1||Since it was very much a work gathering, we naturally restricted ourselves to the house special: a Tristan Shandy.|
|⇧2||Cf. Hom. Od. 9.225: τυρῶν αἰνυμένους ἰέναι πάλιν. Haec interpretatio non aliqua invenitur.|
|⇧3||Perhaps Gan Ying, who according to Chinese sources led an embassy westward in the late first century.|
|⇧6||Here, as so often, Pausanias is technically correct. The number of Boris’s children has never been formally ascertained.|
|⇧7||Scholars disagree on the identity of the Sage, or even if it was one person or a group. Following Frazer, we may conjecture a ‘college’ of shamanic figures experienced in occult healing practices.|
|⇧8||Here is a significant lacuna. It is likely that Pausanias described the treatment accorded to persons who were ritually cursed, as they were seen to betray the efforts of the rest of the community. The late Mr Bruce Chatwin and I were fortunate to witness such a ceremony in a remote village in Afghanistan, where solidarity is simply a matter of survival.|
|⇧9||There are several problems with the text here. In reading ‘excrement,’ I have attempted to render what Emmanuel is thought to have said, although the extreme vulgarity of the language is, I admit, a difficulty.|