Ancient History is Happening Now: Jacek Bocheński and his Roman Trilogy

Katarzyna Marciniak

Imagine you are not allowed to speak your mind, even in matters that are crucial to you. Imagine you are not allowed to tell political jokes, unless you are prepared to lose your job because of them. Imagine you are not allowed to publish anything without the permission of the censors’ office.[1]

This is not the background of a dystopian novel. This is the dire reality of many people today, while you are reading this text, in various parts of the globe. And for several decades, as long as the Iron Curtain divided a great part of Europe from the democratic West, this was also the lot of Jacek Bocheński (1926–) – a Polish writer and dissident whose Roman Trilogy is now appearing for the first time in English translation.

The book covers of The Roman Trilogy by Jacek Bocheński, translated by Tom Pinch, along with an introductory volume (Mondrala Press, Luxembourg, 2022–3).

The ancient threads Bocheński used in this cycle, particularly in the first two volumes published before 1989, formed an Aesopian language – a sort of double-speak permitting him to evade censorship. This manner of communication is a well-known phenomenon in the reception of Classical Antiquity that we all have experienced, although (hopefully) in less dangerous contexts. Namely, references to ancient culture build a code that enables us – above the borders dividing different lands and generations – to discuss current events, break various taboos, and express, in this encoded way, all that seems difficult to express directly.

The three volumes The Divine Julius (1961), Naso the Poet (1969), and Tiberius Caesar (2009) constitute probably one of the most slowly emerging series in world literature, and hence they mirror nearly fifty years of transformations in Poland and abroad, as observed by Bocheński, who over all those years and still today has been taking an active part in public life. In the era of the Iron Curtain he was engaged in opposition activities.[2] After the country regained democratic freedoms in 1989, he dedicated himself to organizing cultural life as the President of the Polish PEN Club (1997–9).

Now, with his typical courage in testing ever newer means of expression and contact with the public, he is a blogger and social media user, commenting with empathy on the most pressing issues. He has always been up to date with the societal and political changes in the world, too, thanks to his artistic scholarships abroad and his talks with young people, whom he calls “a seismograph of transformations”.[3] Over the past year, his posts on the war in Ukraine and his meetings with Ukrainian immigrants have been especially moving. For at the age of 96 Bocheński is still ready to stand up for freedom and democracy.

Owing to the potential of the Classics and Bocheński’s talent, the ancient code used by the writer has never lost its universal character. Thus, in The Roman Trilogy Classical culture encourages deep reflection both on the past and on our own times, as well, for – as Bocheński observes in Naso the Poet – “ancient history is happening now”.[4]

Ovid among the Scythians, Eugène Delacroix, 1862 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

A Classical Childhood

Bocheński was born in 1926 in Lwów (today’s Lviv in Ukraine). One of the first texts he read as a child was a translation of the Shield of Hercules by his father, the Classical philologist and poet Tadeusz Bocheński (1895–1962). As he recalls, what most imprinted itself in his memory was the mythological love triangle between Zeus, Alcmene, and Amphitryon, although its nature was unclear to the boy he then was.[5]

Next, as a teenager, he was impressed also by Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, published in the famous series Biblioteka Filomaty (The Philomath’s Library), created for youths by Professor Ryszard Ganszyniec (1888–1958), also a Classicist, who wished to educate new generations on Classical values for a country that had just regained independence after 123 years of absence from the world map.[6] Bocheński took a special liking to the passage in which Cicero assures the reader that one should not be afraid of death. His adult experiences put to the test the value of his Classical education; it emerged from that test victorious and became the foundation for both his work and his life choices.

Jacek Bocheński at the age of four.

The Divine Julius, or “A Bald Gentleman in a Toga”

Paradoxically, Bocheński had no intention of writing The Roman Trilogy. Moreover, its first volume was not intended to be a book at all. After the ‘October Thaw’ of 1956 – the brief period of liberalization following the end of Stalinism – the situation in Poland became tense again and freedom was an unattainable and even unspeakable dream. Bocheński decided to abandon his regular job at the weekly Przegląd Kulturalny (Cultural Review). He heeded, however, the editor’s request to retreat gradually in order not to cause a scandal. This plan, when viewed from the perspective of later events, acquires a strong tone of irony.

Bocheński was determined to write ‘neutral’ essays, as remote from the present times as possible. And what could be more remote than Antiquity? As if in response to that rhetorical question, “Jacek Horacek” (as he was called by friends who mocked his love for Horace) returned to the book he had read as a teenager: Caesar’s De bello Gallico.

It was a shocking rediscovery for Bocheński, who felt struck by Caesar’s “modern mentality”. Bocheński could not tell whether he simply had not noticed this as a young man or whether it “had evaporated somehow from his mind during Stalinism”,[7] but this phenomenon fascinated him deeply. It is how he came up with the idea for his essays. They were meant to be short presentations of ancient sources; what he was still searching for was a way to present them. Indeed, the available translations appeared obsolete to him: “they seem to render the original line by line, but they mean something else… Caesar in Latin sounds extremely modern… Yet, his affairs are dull, distant, and ancient, when translated,” he recalls.[8]

Caesar dictating on horseback, Jaques de Gheyn, 1629 (Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames, UK).

In view of this, Bocheński decided to take matters into his own hands. He prepared his own translations, with the ample use of anachronisms and modern vocabulary, such as “the shameful psychosis of fear”, “the sovereign society”, and “a better system”.[9] In an interview with Bocheński that I had the honour to conduct for one of my research projects, he explained his translation method as follows:

I read a Latin sentence, and I reflect on how I would say it if I were this Roman. Or I imagine how somebody else would say it, and if this version convinces me, I use it in the translation. If not, I search for other possibilities until I am satisfied with the final result. But later, I often make amendments because my taste changes during the process of writing. In fact, the translational and original, creative activities hardly differ.

The essence of this method consisted in catalyzing a clash between the ancient (that is, commonly perceived as outdated) content with the most modern concepts, and this exerted a powerful impact on the audience. Its full force manifested itself, however, when Bocheński reworked his essays into a book – The Divine Julius.

Book cover of the first Polish edition of The Divine Julius (Czytelnik, Warsaw, 1961).

As Bocheński recalls, once they were brought together, his essays “took on a sharply allusive character… and they… were deemed to be a camouflage… used by the author to criticize communism.”[10] The clever maneuvering of the editorial board who directed the book not to the belles-lettres department but to that for historical studies enabled its publication. This maneuvering did not manage, however, to conceal the glow of the mirror of Antiquity. It was shining strongly, showing the reflection of… a bald womanizer.

This image definitely attracted attention. The first review of The Divine Julius, by Zofia Kwiecińska, in the popular weekly Nowa Kultura (New Culture) of 19 November 1961, was even entitled “Łysy pan w todze” (“A Bald Gentleman in a Toga”). Today this may seem surreal, but Caesar’s baldness was discussed at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party, and it became the key to various political interpretations of the book: Józef Cyrankiewicz and Władysław Gomułka, the most prominent politicians in Poland during that period, were both bald. And so was Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow – the kingpin of the region’s politics who barely two years earlier had paid a visit to Warsaw. The conclusion offered itself as “self-evident”: Bocheński must have written the pamphlet about the communist leaders.[11]

From left to right: bust of Julius Caesar (Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany); Józef Cyrankiewicz; Władysław Gomułka; Nikita Khrushchev.

From The Divine Julius onwards, Bocheński was labelled an anti-regime writer – “a cunning critic of the current political situation, even if he seemed to talk about ancient history.”[12] He wound up on the “index” and his publications were banned. The attempt by Nowa Kultura to award him with the Book of the Year prize ended badly: the whole staff of the weekly was either dismissed or else they resigned, and the Party abolished all prizes by the literary press.[13]

Bocheński has always kept a distance from the circulating interpretations of his books. He believes (according to “the law of reception”, by the way) that all the interpretative keys are in the hands of the readers, although he admits that his tortuous meetings with History have left their mark on his writing. Indeed, those meetings, together with his profound knowledge of the ancient sources, give his books an unparalleled depth and ensure their survival in the longue durée.

Owing to this, The Roman Trilogy offers much more than a one-off pamphlet. It is a timeless, still strikingly universal tale of the quest for absolute power. “How would you like to become a god? It is perfectly doable, you know…” – is how The Divine Julius starts (here in Tom Pinch’s translation), offering an ironic recipe for aspiring dictators of all epochs, our own included.

Moreover, it should be noted that the narrator of The Divine Julius is the Antiquary, that is, someone who can be considered an authority by the public. With the passing of time (and the turning of pages), however, the readers become aware that they fully depend on him. Of course, it is comfortable to receive this ready material, extracted and elaborated by the Antiquary from the ancient sources. But what the public also receives is his interpretation of history, and of the present as well. Bocheński shows that the moment we give up on our efforts to acquire knowledge and check the facts on our own, we potentially also give up freedom of mind. There could hardly be a more serious warning on the threshold of an age when access to information is leading to absolute power.

Naso the Poet, or “The Word ‘Book’ Must Be Removed”

Bocheński wrote the second part of The Roman Trilogy, Naso the Poet, in the tumultuous year 1968 – in Poland it was full of protests of various groups of society against the oppressive rule of the Party. After the affair over The Divine Julius, the publication of a new book by Bocheński was out of the question, so his wise and experienced editors decided to wait. Their intuition did not fail them, as just a year later, in 1969, the Party relaxed its policy in order to demonstrate that there were no repressions in Poland. In reality, “no repressions” meant for Bocheński a fierce battle with the censors, who, as he recalls, “were afraid of what a dangerous author they had been given and what tricky allusions must have been hidden in the text”.[14] At a certain stage, he came close to withdrawing the manuscript, for it had been, as he puts it, “massacred”.

Book cover of the first Polish edition of Naso the Poet (Czytelnik, Warsaw, 1969).

In this novel Bocheński continued his bold approach to the ancient sources – here even more audaciously, as it regarded poetry, which he rendered in a modern prose style, as typical of The Divine Julius. This time, however, the narrator took on the mask of an MC in order to present Ovid in a garb that would suit him best for a 20th-century public: that of a rock star.[15] Yet, as Ovid was also “a man of letters” and the novel regarded his conflict with Augustus as “a ruler”,[16] the censors concluded that Bocheński “had tried to smuggle in a text about the ancient poet persecuted for an unknown reason by Octavianus Augustus – no doubt an allusion to the contemporary situation in Poland.”[17] In view of this, they “had to” intervene.

Today some of the censors’ interventions seem bizarre. For instance, one of the clerks saw a dangerous allusion in the sentence: “The poet published a book.” He commented with agitation: “What kind of a book?… But this is about a poet from two thousand years ago and there were no books then, only papyrus rolls. This Bocheński is making allusions to our times. We do not agree with this. The word ‘book’ must be removed from this historical novel.”[18]

In the end, Bocheński managed to keep the term owing to the help of his courageous editor Zula Kulmińska, but the censors demanded that he change everywhere the plural phrase “the poets” to the singular “the poet” to avoid any generalizations that could suggest the conflict between the authorities and the artist concerned more people than just Ovid and Augustus – such as the dissident writers of the 1960s and the Party.

Naso the Poet saw a second edition as soon as 1974, to make up for the (then) shockingly small 1969 print run (5,000 copies that immediately sold out). Yet the version fully approved by the writer was to appear not until 1999 – a decade after the end of the People’s Republic of Poland. In my interview with him, Bocheński admitted that, in presenting Augustus as a totalitarian ruler, he had indeed meant one of the Party leaders of that period; however, as in the case of The Divine Julius, the ancient references permitted him to achieve much more. Naso the Poet is a universal study on the relationship between artists and the authorities.[19]

Ovid ruminates a hundred metres from the Black Sea: the Piața Ovidiu in the Romanian port of Constanța (ancient Tomis), to where he was exiled in AD 8.

Tiberius Caesar, or “What Is Better, A Locomotive or Plato?”

Once the potential of “ancient history happening now” manifested itself clearly, Bocheński felt the need to continue what became The Roman Trilogy. The next natural – that is, chronological – step was Tiberius Caesar. Yet he was at a loss: he had no idea for the book. He drafted only a fragment – the novel’s opening, which this time his colleagues from the Catholic press considered “improper”. In fact, the still-shocking description of Tiberius’ wrongdoings on Capri is again Bocheński’s modern translation from the ancient sources (here: Suetonius), and this deliberate modernity of style again triggered the full scale of horrors from the past. Thereafter, writer’s block manifested itself. It lasted nearly 30 years,[20] until illumination came.

Jacek Bocheński with Suetonius (photo by Włodzimierz Wasyluk).

Bocheński understood that during his work on The Roman Trilogy he became a witness to the evolution of humankind. According to the writer, our species changed from Homo iterans (a human being keen on repeating the tried-and-tested paths of tradition) into Homo novans (a human being striving for novelty).[21] The consequences of this evolution, as summarized by Bocheński, are serious:

Namely, with the moment in which progress is considered the higher value, as tradition was previously, everything is subjected by force to reevaluation… Questions seemingly bizarre must surface, but they are nevertheless real: what is better, a locomotive or Plato? Electricity or charity? The answer is that such things cannot be put together. In practice humankind gives another answer…[22]

Here Bocheński does not question the importance of rebellion against any unjust regulations imposed by the authorities of various kinds in the past (or present). After all, he has always been a rebel himself and has always supported, many a time at great personal risk, the actions of new generations for democracy, inclusivity, and freedom. In his diagnosis of contemporary society, he observes that ancient culture, including Latin and Greek, require effort and engagement from us, and this is difficult in our epoch, when life is expected to be easy and all blends together.

A Roman emperor, a French king, and protagonists from the front pages of last year’s newspapers “all belong to an alien past, without distinguishing marks; there is no reason, no will, no time to occupy ourselves with them.”[23] Facing the choice between a locomotive and Plato, people more and more often choose a comfortable journey: “one may fear that we will sever the continuity dating back to palaeolithic times simply for comfort and thrift.”[24]

Book cover of the first Polish edition of Tiberius Caesar (Świat Książki, Warsaw, 2009).

Awareness of these processes permitted Bocheński to complete his Roman Trilogy in 2009. The narrator in Tiberius Caesar puts on the mask of a Guide. He leads the readers as tourists through the Roman Empire, but also through our times. He pretends to play along with the flow, only to expose new forms of mind restriction resulting from severing links with the past, the memory of which, as he demonstrates in the novel, is a condition for a just present and a moral future.

Book cover of the first Polish edition of Antiquity after Antiquity (Świat Książki, Warsaw, 2010).

A Salvatory Somersault

In the conclusion of the collection of essays Antyk po antyku (Antiquity after Antiquity), nominated for the Nike Prize (the highest literature award in Poland), Bocheński observes that against all odds, the heritage of Antiquity is still being cultivated, albeit in new forms, and with his own participation in the phenomenon as well.[25] He is therefore cautiously optimistic.

The roots of Bocheński’s optimism should also be sought in his faith that the world, when it arrives at the verge of catastrophe, will make a “salvatory somersault”, and this will save us.[26] And the Classics prepare us for this somersault by showing us various paths and the consequences of choosing them.

Jacek Bocheński and Katarzyna Marciniak at the launch event of Antiquity after Antiquity in Warsaw, 2010 (photo by Mariusz Kubik).

Though an authority awarded in 2013 one of the highest decorations of the III Republic of Poland, the Grand Cross of the Order Polonia Restituta, Bocheński has never acted with superiority or hubris. Instead, he has been placing readers in front of the mirror of Antiquity, allowing them to interpret the images that emerge therein, while remaining fearless of confrontation with those who reject it as useless. On the contrary, by offering a wide panorama of the ancient world – with its beauty, terror, and all the gaps in our knowledge of it – he intends to make his audience think independently and break with the comfortable way of living where information is given. This is why he calls the apparently “outlandish” interest in Antiquity a rebellion against one’s self, a disagreement with automatism, and a path leading to intellectual freedom.

Katarzyna Marciniak is Director of the Centre for Studies on the Classical Tradition (OBTA) at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of “Artes Liberales”. She established the international programme Our Mythical Childhood, bringing together scholars from several continents with the aim of studying the reception of Classical Antiquity in children’s and young adult culture. She also writes for children and has published two volumes of myths for young readers.

Further Reading (in English):

J. Axer, “Latin as a sign of life? The reception of the ancient tradition as a marker in the analysis of the Sovietization process in Poland,” in C. Bradatan (ed.), Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe (Routledge, London, 2012) 119–27.

J. Axer with K. Tomaszuk, “The classical tradition in central-eastern Europe”, in C. Kallendorf (ed.), A Companion to the Classical Tradition (Blackwell, Chichester/Malden, MA, 2007) 132–56.

G. Karsai, G. Klaniczay, D. Movrin and E. Olechowska (edd.), Classics and Communism: Greek and Latin behind the Iron Curtain (Znanstvena založba Filosofske Fakultete–Collegium Budapest–Faculty of “Artes Liberales” UW, Ljubljana/Budapest/Warsaw, 2013).

K. Marciniak, “Veni, Vidi, Verti. Jacek Bocheński’s Games with Censorship”, in D. Movrin and E. Olechowska, eds., Classics and Class. Greek and Latin Classics and Communism at School (Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana–OBTA, Faculty of “Artes Liberales” UW, Ljubljana/Warsaw, 2016) 358–87 (with photos at 504–11).

D. Movrin and E. Olechowska (edd.), Classics and Class. Greek and Latin Classics and Communism at School (Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana–OBTA, Faculty of “Artes Liberales” UW, Ljubljana/Warsaw, 2016).

D. Movrin, E. Olechowska and H. Stead (edd.),  A Proletarian Classics: The Relationship between Ancient Greek and Roman Culture and World Communism from 1917, special issue of Clotho 4.2 (2022).

T. Ziolkowski, Ovid and the Moderns (Cornell UP, Ithaca, NY, 2005).


1 This text is based on my chapter “Veni, Vidi, Verti. Jacek Bocheński’s Games with Censorship”, published in David Movrin & Elżbieta Olechowska (edd.), Classics and Class. Greek and Latin Classics and Communism at School (Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana–OBTA, Faculty of “Artes Liberales” UW, Ljubljana–Warsaw, 2016) 358–87, ill. 504–11. These are the first editions of Bocheński’s Roman Trilogy: Boski Juliusz. Zapiski antykwariusza (Czytelnik, Warsaw, 1961); German edition: Göttlicher Julius. Aufzeichnungen eines Antiquars (trans. Walter Tiel, Ehrenwirth, Munich, 1961); Ukrainian edition: Божествений Юлій (trans. Ніна Бічуя=Nina Bichuya, Piramida, Lviv, 2013); Nazo poeta (Czytelnik, Warsaw, 1969); German edition: Der Täter heisst Ovid (trans. Peter Lachmann, Europaverlag, Vienna, 1975); Ukrainian edition: Овідій Назон – поет (trans. Ніна Бічуя=Nina Bichuya, Piramida, Lviv, 2013); Tyberiusz Cezar (Świat Książki, Warsaw, 2009); English translations of this trilogy by Tom Pinch were published in Luxembourg by Mondrala Press in 2022–3.
2 For instance, he was an editor of ZAPIS – the first literary samizdat in Poland (1976–81).
3 See Jacek Bocheński, “Przypis do Tyberiusza Cezara”, in id., Antyk po antyku (Świat Książki, Warsaw, 2010) 198.
4 Jacek Bocheński, Nazo poeta (Czytelnik, Warsaw, 1999) 9.
5 Jacek Bocheński, “Książki dzieciństwa”, Dekada Literacka 22–3 (1993); via the author’s blog.
6 That absence resulted from the partitions of Poland (from the third partition in 1795 to the end of WWI in 1918).
7 Jacek Bocheński, “Przypis do Boskiego Juliusza”, in Jacek Bocheński, Antyk po antyku (Świat Książki, Warsaw, 2010) 120.
8 Jacek Bocheński, “Rzeczy stare i nowe” (1973), in Jacek Bocheński, Antyk po antyku (Świat Książki, Warsaw, 2010) 8.
9 See Leszek Szaruga, “Różnica i tożsamość”, in Leszek Szaruga, Współczesna powieść polityczna (PWN, Warsaw, 2001), via Bocheński’s blog. See also Jacek Bocheński, “Rzeczy stare i nowe”, 9, and my interview with the author.
10 Bocheński, “Przypis do Boskiego Juliusza”, 124.
11 Ibid., 133–8.
12 Bocheński, “Przypis do Nazona poety”, in Jacek Bocheński, Antyk po antyku (Świat Książki, Warsaw, 2010) 164.
13 Bocheński, “Przypis do Boskiego Juliusza”, 116–54.
14 In my interview with the author.
15 See also Theodore Ziolkowski, Ovid and the Moderns (Cornell UP, Itaca, NY, 2005) 159. Interestingly enough, Jason Brooks, in his 2007 review of Ziolkowski’s volume (Comparative Literature Studies 44), observed: “It is regrettable that these texts [Eckart’s Liebe war sein Schicksal and Bocheński’s Naso the Poet] are not available outside of their original languages, and it is much to Ziolkowski’s credit that he brings them to a wider public” (197).
16 In my interview with the author; see also Bocheński, “Przypis do Nazona poety”, 164.
17 Bocheński, “Przypis do Nazona poety”, 164–5.
18 Jacek Bocheński, “Literatura nie zaginie”, Magazyn Bibliotek Mokotowskich “Sowa Mokotowa” 4 (2010–11; accessed via the author’s blog); see also Bocheński, “Przypis do Nazona poety”, 168.
19 For some illuminating examples of the iconographic reception of the Roman emperors, see Mary Beard’s Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern (Princeton UP, NJ, 2021).
20 Interestingly enough, the writer’s block affected only this last volume of The Roman Trilogy: Bocheński wrote many other important texts in that period.
21 Bocheński, “Rzeczy stare i nowe”, 5–51.
22 Ibid., 41.
23 Bocheński, “Przypis do Tyberiusza Cezara”, 199.
24 From my interview with the author.
25 Bocheński, “Przypis do Tyberiusza Cezara”, 207.
26 Bocheński, Kaprysy starszego pana (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow, 2004) 251–3.