A Sumptuous Seduction

In Book X of the Pharsalia Lucan describes the feast given by Cleopatra to Julius Caesar. The background to this lavish celebration is, in the manner of the later Lucan, sombre, republican, and decidedly anti-imperial. The book begins with Caesar landing in Egypt where Pompey, his adversary in Rome’s civil wars, has recently been murdered — in the Pharsalia Egypt is, from the first, presented as a place fatal to republican virtue.  

Almost the first thing Caesar does once he has landed is to visit the tomb of Alexander the Great, and this provides Lucan with a chance to inveigh against “Macedonia’s madman”:

Illic Pellaei proles vaesana Philippi,Felix praedo, iacet terrarum vindice fatoRaptus: . . .

There lies the mad son of Macedonian Philip, that lucky brigand, carried off by a death that avenged the world: . . .

For Lucan, Alexander was the fountain-head of empire, the man born to teach the world the harmful lesson that “terras tot posse sub uno | Esse viro” (so many lands may be ruled by one man).  

Yet in one respect Alexander surpassed the Romans who followed him, in that he was able to subdue the East. Lucan admits that this task has proved too much for his countrymen, and recalls the disastrous eastern expedition of the triumvir Marcus Crassus, defeated by a smaller force of Parthians at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC:

            Non felix Parthia CrassisExiguae secura fuit provincia Pellae.

Parthia, fatal to the Crassi, was a peaceful province of little Pella (i.e. Macedonia).

These two keynotes — that the East is the poisonous source of imperial notions, and that Rome has proved impotent in its efforts to subdue the Orient — set the scene for the seduction of Caesar by Cleopatra which follows. Overcome by Cleopatra’s blandishments, Caesar agrees to restore Cleopatra to the throne of Egypt, and the event is celebrated with a great feast. Lucan expatiates over the magnificence of the banqueting hall, its sumptuous and rare decoration, and the number and exoticness of the attendants. He admits that even the legendary heroes of the Roman republic in its heyday — Fabricius, Curius, and Cincinnatus — could not have withstood the temptations lavished on Caesar:

Pone duces priscos et nomina pauperis aevi,Fabricios Curiosque graves, hic ille recumbatSordidus Etruscis abductus consul aratris: Optabit patriae talem duxisse triumphum.

Place here the ancient leaders and the names of an age of poverty — a Fabricius and stern Curius; or let the consul, summoned unwashed from his plough in Etruria, take his place at this table — he will pray to enjoy so great a triumph for his homeland.

The food and drink were equal to the magnificence of the occasion. Plates of gold were loaded with every imaginable dainty, including birds and beasts held sacred by the Egyptians.  Nile water was supplied in crystal ewers — but only for purposes of washing.  To drink, the guests were served a wine in which the Egyptian and the Italian were mingled:

                     gemmaeque capacesExcepere merum, sed non Mareotidos uvae,Nobile sed paucis senium cui contulit annisIndomitum Meroe cogens spumare Falernum.

Great jewelled goblets held the wine, but not wine made from Egyptian grapes — no, it was noble Falernian, which Meroe in a few years brings to maturity, forcing its stubborn nature to foam.

One of the many great lies in Herodotus is the assertion that the Egyptians drank only beer, because no vines grew in their country. In fact, archaeological evidence shows that wine played an important part in the religious and social life of the ancient Egyptians. Falernian, however, was an Italian white wine, grown on the slopes of Monte Massico in Campania. It was high in alcohol, and would normally support long ageing.  So to serve Falernian in Egypt, rather than any of the local product, was a mark of great respect.

The fascinating fragment of ancient viticulture that Lucan preserves, however, is the detail concerning the great desert city of Meroe. Meroe was the opulent metropolis of the kingdom of Kush, in what is now Sudan, and had grown rich by being at the intersection of trade routes.

Lucan seems to be describing a rare vinous delicacy: Falernian imported from Campania, and then transported many miles upstream to this distant, sultry city, there to undergo a secondary fermentation which made it foam and sparkle. The labour involved, even at a time when manpower was for conquering nations so cheap as to be virtually free, must have made this an uncommon and precious drink. 

The taste for it, or something like it, endures today in Italy. In Emilia Romagna, for instance, the fairly ordinary local wines are often made “spumante”, and this sometimes gives them an interest they would otherwise lack.

The fabulous city of Meroe is mentioned several times in the Pharsalia, and contributes powerful notes of extremity to the poem’s baroque, outré atmosphere. Earlier in the poem, when Caesar has surrounded the camp of Afranius with a trench, and is forcing his enemies to surrender for want of water, Lucan draws attention to an aggravating feature of their torment:

Quoque magis miseros undae ieiunia solvant,Non super arentem Meroen Cancrique sub axe,Qua nudi Garamantes arant, sedere, sed inter Stagnantem Sicorim et rapidum deprensus HiberumSpectat vicinos sitiens exercitus amnes.

And, so that the dearth of water may depress them still more in their misery, they are not beyond burning Meroe and beneath the sign of Cancer, where the naked Garamantes live, but the thirsting army, trapped between the brimming Sicoris and the swift Hiberum, can see rivers close at hand.

What those parched republicans would have given for a draught of sparkling, Meroite Falernian!

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