Great Books Challenge Lesson 12

Lesson 12 is the final installment in this Old Western Culture video course on The Romans, unit 1, and it has been a grand adventure. Wes Callihan has taken us through the entire Aeneid, greatest of the Roman epics, and led us through large portions of Ovid’s mythical tales of Metamorphoses. In this final lesson we are introduced to the last three of the Roman epics, connected (oddly enough) by the theme of impiety: De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, Pharsalia by Lucan, and Thebaid by Statius.

We first learn of the the three great philosophies that competed for the minds of the Roman people: Epicurianism, Stoicism, and Skepticism, some of whom Paul encountered on the Areopagus in Acts 17. Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (“The Nature of Things”) presents the bleak, atomistic philosophy of Epicurus, and tries to sweeten the cup by putting it into poetry. His denial of the gods and rejection of religion stands in sharp contrast to the two earlier epics of this series. Here is a quote of his thesis:

“I prove the supreme law of Gods and sky,
And the primordial germs of things unfold,
Whence Nature all creates, and multiplies
And fosters all, and whither she resolves
Each in the end when each is overthrown.
This ultimate stock we have devised to name
Procreant atoms, matter, seeds of things,
Or primal bodies, as primal to the world.”

A lovely presentation of an ultimately empty philosophy, and a clear presentation of the power of poetry to lead men astray, even as they search for some kind of truth.

Next, we learn about the Pharsalia by Lucan, who tells of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Lucan was a friend of Nero, and after lamenting brother fighting brother, he presents a shockingly amoral apology for it in a dedication to Nero:

“…’Twas civil strife alone
That dealt the wound and left the death behind.
Yet if the fates could find no other way
For Nero’s coming, nor the gods with ease
Gain thrones in heaven…for such a boon
All wickedness be welcome and all crime;
Thronged with our dead be dire Pharsalia’s fields…
Still Rome is gainer by the civil war.
Thou, Caesar, art her prize.”

Last, we learn of Statius’ Thebaid, which tells the story of the Seven against Thebes in twelve books written in dactylic hexameter, in imitation of the Aeneid.  Mr. Callihan tells us that after a generation of wicked emperors, many Romans turned to the occult and Eastern mystery religions, which is reflected in this book.

“My spirit is touched by Pierian fire to recount the strife of brethren,
and the battle of the alternate reign fought out with impious hatred,
and all the guilty tale of Thebes. Whence, O goddesses, do ye bid me begin?”

Statius, we are told, was a devoted pupil of Vergil, and so appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he fawns after his former teacher as they climb the hill of Purgatory. And so here at the end, we have a glance back at Vergil, and the story comes full circle.

This Old Western Culture course on The Romans has been a true delight, and I look forward to learning more from my friend Wes Callihan as we open the great books in his study together.

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