Gluteus Maximus, You’re nothing but a bum!
from Roman Holiday – The Poems of Meniscus Diabetes, A Brief Anthology
Edited and translated by Paul Hemphill © 1999
MENISCUS DIABETES A Roman poet of Greek origin, noted for an iconoclastic, and jaunty style. Very little remains of his work. Most of his manuscripts are believed to have been destroyed during the Great Fire of Rome (64 CE). But what has survived has endured as a chronicle of life in the Roman Empire during the early First Century CE.
The Perils of a Poet in Nero’s Rome
In the First century, the Roman Empire was a far-ranging and cosmopolitan polity extending from the shores of the Atlantic to the borders of Persia. As far as we can ascertain from the historical record, Meniscus Diabetes was born in Rome in 25 CE. His father was a Greek slave in the Imperial Household of Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome.
These were turbulent times for Rome. But it would appear that Meniscus family were able to maintain a low profile during this period and were thus able to survive the intrigues of the court, and the bloody purges that were to attend the deaths of Sejenus, Tiberius’ ambitious lieutenant, Tiberius himself, and his heir, the plausibly mentally unbalanced Caligula. Life in the Roman Imperial court was nothing if not exciting, intrigue and rivalry being the order of the day. Caligula’s eccentricities were many and memorable, none more so than his appointment of his horse Incitatus as a consul (in our own jaded and cynical age, we would no doubt say that a horse would be more worthy of office than our own elected representatives). It was particularly dangerous to be a member of the royal family, and it was no doubt to the relief of many that the ship of state, and with it, the royal household, sailed into the more tranquil waters of the reign of the Emperor Claudius (41-54 CE).
The young Meniscus was a precocious youth, his quick wit and sardonic humour bringing him to the attention of the scholarly alcoholic Claudius. Claudius took the young Greek under his wing and ordered that he be schooled in the fine arts: languages, history, rhetoric, philosophy, poetry, drama and music. Meniscus’ skills developed apace, and very soon, he featured prominently in the emperor’s “musical evenings” (generally, an excuse for wine, merriment, and more wine). During this period, Meniscus honed a poetic style and content that drew much of its inspiration from the tabloid character of Roman scrollage and from everyday events in the life of the city and the empire at large.
As a member of the imperial court, Meniscus accompanied Claudius on his tours of the empire, and he may have been in attendance during the Emperor’s desultory invasion of Britain in 43 CE (Claudius only veni, vedi, vinci to acquire an out-of-character martial reputation). We do know that he spent a formative year in the Province of Palestine with Claudius’ good friend Herod Agrippa. Correspondence between Claudius and Herod attest to this. It is very likely that during his sojourn in Palestine he would have come into contact with Jewish religion and folklore, and with the nascent Nazarene sect that was to become the Christians. It was in Palestine that Meniscus either researched or actually penned the acclaimed “Hebrew Heroes” song cycle and the epic ballad “Lilith”.
A favourite of Claudius’ Greek advisers Pallas and Narcissus, Meniscus survived the purges that predictably followed Claudius’ death and the succession of Nero in 54 CE. It is alleged that Claudius’ fourth wife Aggripina (Claudius’ niece and Narcissus’ lover) poisoned Claudius to secure the succession for her son (of a previous marriage – this was how things were done in Roman days), Lucius Domitius Enobarbus, soon to be known to Romans and history as Nero.
The Emperor Nero prided himself as both and patron and participant of the arts. Painter, sculptor, modeller, poet, singer, musician, and thespian. Nor was he content with being a bystander. He wanted to be in the show – nay, THE show – acclaimed as a great artist in his own right. Meniscus was in the right place at the right time. And it was a member of Nero’s artistic entourage that he first met Gluteus Maximus, lyre and flute player extraordinaire, composer, and tutor to the emperor himself. Thus began what became the first historically recorded song-writing partnership, and indeed, and indeed, the most enduring and successful musical collaboration of the middle Roman period. One might suggest that they were a Roman Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
The pair were soon setting poetry to music, particularly the earlier works of Meniscus. Their collaboration was a fruitful one, and many of their songs survive to this day, characterized by their satirical, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, their often prescient use of metaphor and allegory, and the jaunty, holiday-time melodies and musical arrangements. These drew their inspiration from a variety of sources, for Rome’s Empire was wide, and the subject matter was there for the taking, from the deserts of the eastern provinces, to steppes of Sarmatia, to the Pictish marches of Britannia.
Meniscus and Gluteus were inner-circle members of Nero’s “Party Animal Party” (Factionis Fera Festiva). They were the musical team at the heart of the ‘bread and circuses’ policy which scandalized “noble Romans”, offended the Senate, and delighted the mob – who were not in the least offended by the Emperor’s self-indulgence and cruelty. Ninety years of Julian emperors has an anaesthetizing affect.
The pair would have witnessed the excesses of Nero’s tenure, including his murder of his stepbrother and first wife (both the children of his great-uncle Claudius), and of his mother Agrippina (after a collapsible boat failed to drown her, he had her killed by his officers). His wife Octavia, he banished to an island and had murdered, to be replaced by the vain and beautiful Poppeia (who is said to have kept a herd of fifty donkeys so that she could bathe in their milk). Nero took to extremes his experimentation with the limits of autocratic power. It is alleged that when he cruised down the Tiber, he would set up a line of brothels along the river’s banks for the use of himself and his entourage. He is said to have stalked the streets at night disguised with a band of companions, attacking men on their way home from dinner, stabbing them if they offered resistance, and dropping their bodies into the sewers. This was, apparently, an acknowledged sport of Roman young bloods.
Games and circuses were the hallmark of Nero’s reign. Wild beast fights, camel races, elephant performances, mock sea battles in the flooded arena. And one way to get the applause of the crowds was to become the act himself. He became therefore a charioteer. In 60CE he established the Neronia, modelled loosely on the Olympic Games, a celebration of athletics and the arts, with himself as the Patron. During his public recitals, no one was allowed to leave the arena. Women were known to give birth. Men would faint and feign death in order to be carried out for ostensible burial. All the world was a stage.
Meniscus and Gluteus would likewise have witnessed the Great Fire of Rome (64 CE). Probably accidental (a crowded, slummy, high-rise, pyro-prone city), it was rumoured that Nero had started it to create a site for a new palace, The Golden House. The fire was nevertheless attributed to the Christians who had settled in Rome in great and thence threatening numbers. This resulted in a predictable, planned, and very cinematographical persecution that has been immortalized in celluloid. The utmost refinements in torture were devised for these unfortunates. Vast numbers were killed: slaughtered by gladiators, torn to death by wild animals, burned on crosses to serve as lamps. That Meniscus witnessed these harrowing events is undoubted. That he was emotionally, creatively, and also spiritually affected by them is likewise indisputable. Many of his songs refer to this time, and indeed demonstrate empathy for the persecuted sect (indeed, many Romans were sympathetic to the strength of the martyred Christians’ faith and endurance).
The years following the fire and the Christian persecutions were unsettled ones for Rome and Romans. Riots, conspiracies, revolts, purges, and murders were commonplace. Life in the Imperial court was bitchy, secretive, and competitive. Spies were everywhere. Fear, suspicion and hypocrisy were all pervasive (the term “courtesy” derives from Latin – how people behave in courts: carefully, keeping motives and emotions hidden). Hundreds of aristocrats and courtiers were killed or forced to suicide (another innovative practice introduced by the Caesars). It is well documented that such was the depth of his suspicion and fear, Nero ordered the deaths of his entire extended family to remove any threat they might represent to him.
Seneca, Nero’s long-time tutor, endeavoured in vain to guide his charge towards a more enlightened kingship. Poor old Seneca was on of the most famous but hopelessly unsuccessful teachers in his day. Considered to be the wisest and most virtuous men of his time, he failed utterly with his charge. To be fair, the cards were stacked against him. Nero did not have one of the best starts in life. He lost his father at three. His brother stole his inheritance. His mother was exiled, so he was given to an aunt who put him in the care of a dancer and a hairdresser, two rather dubious professions to the classical mind. This was Seneca’s raw material – but it was all too late in the story. Perhaps from his experience, Seneca has handed down to us one of the most sensible of all writings on parenthood in classical times: Do not allow a child to throw tantrums. Freedom that is unrestrained results in a character that is unbearable; but total restriction leads to a servile character. For his pains, Seneca was encouraged to kill himself.
Even the beautiful and vain Poppeia did not survive this period: Nero kicked her to death (with her unborn child) when she came home late from the games. Meniscus, sheltered in the imperial household, weathered this storm. But, as was the way of Rome, Nero’s days were numbered.
Yet, Nero felt confident enough to embark upon a grand artistic tour of Greece. At the Olympic Games, he won the ten-horse chariot race despite falling from his vehicle and failing to finish. He displayed his 1,808 Victory Garlands, but it was an empty spectacle. Whilst the Emperor and his troupe were still touring Greece, revolts broke out in Gaul and Spain. The army, ever the kingmaker, was restless and insubordinate, declaring Galba emperor.
Returning home, Nero found himself deserted by army and senate, and fled Rome in disguise. Hiding in a villa in the Roman suburbs, he heard that the Senate had declared him a Public Enemy. One by one, his supporters faded away into the night. By June 68 CE, the games was up. He tried to commit suicide, but unable to keep his hand steady, he had one slave hold the sword and another push him on to it. He lacked the courage to take his own life. Thus departed a particularly abominable but perversely attractive character. “Qualis artifex pere” (What an Artist perishes in Me”), he is reputed to have declaimed as he decamped, an actor to the last. But is very likely that it was Meniscus who penned these final words.
But we are never to know. For Meniscus and Gluteus were never seen again in Rome.
With Nero’s death, both fell from grace. There are no further references to either of them in imperial records. But in recent years, their work has come to light in the most unlikely and varied of places, suggesting unexpected and intriguing epiphanies for this early poet laureate.
Manuscripts have been unearthed in archaeological sites from Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, to Palmyra in modern Syria. In Israel, they have been found at Roman Ceasarea, Beit Shean, and at Tiberius on the shores of Galilee. And in Italy, in the remains of Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 80 CE, and significantly, in the catacombs of Ancient Rome which served as shelter for the persecuted Christians during the late first century and early second.
It is now widely believed that Meniscus may have joined this group. Many poems have come to light that record events and personalities of the early days of the Christian Church: the “Apostle Poems”, The Road to Damascus and Peter & Paul, and the chilling Song of the Thief.
That Meniscus was drawn to the nascent faith was not surprising. Educated Greeks has always harboured monotheist sympathies that never sat too comfortably with the Romans’ spiritual profligacy. Everybody’s god, great or small was ever welcome in the Roman pantheon. The Greeks, however, always had a place in their hearts and hearths for the ‘Hidden God”, the One.
One theory about Meniscus’ career after Nero’s death is that he joined the Christian sect, possibly becoming a victim of the persecutions that continued for thirty years after Nero’s death – and indeed continued intermittently for the next two hundred, until Constantine, for political reasons rather that religious ones, gave them his patronage.
Another is that he left Italy altogether.
After a century of peace under the Julian emperors, Rome once again descended into civil war. A new breed of soldier emperors emerged from the provinces to seize the rotating crown, expanding the borders of the empire. Galba was murdered within months to be replaced by Otho, another general, who did not last the year. Otho was replaced by Vitellius, who in turn was killed to be succeeded by Vespasian (who managed to stay around, and with his son Titus, founded the Flavian dynasty). 69 is known as the Year of the Four Emperors.
It is possible that Meniscus and Gluteus followed in the van of the legions, picking up a living as entertainers in the provincial cities, far away from danger and mayhem of the court and the capital. They may have passed beyond the frontiers of the empire, seeking sanctuary from Barbarian princes who prized, respected, and rewarded oratory, poetry, and music.
The pair may have sought shelter on some idyllic Greek island, or settled in the Syrian outback. They may have ventured to the forests of Thrace, in modern Serbia, or beyond the Danube in the forests that Romans feared since the destruction of Varus’ legions and the loss of his eagles back in the days of the Divine Augustus. They may have settled in Jerusalem, shattered and scattered after the reprisals of Trajan and VespasianOr they may have decamped to the marches of Britannia, the wilds of Caledonia and Hibernia.
One would like to imagine that somewhere on the frontiers of civilization as it was then know, the descendants of two émigré Roman musicians were guiding the development of Celtic music and song. Come to think of it, Anglo-Celtic music does indeed echo the work of Meniscus Diabetes and Gluteus Maximus.
The Poems in Perspective
The Hebrew Heroes Song Cycle
During the reign of the Emperor Claudius, Meniscus Diabetes spent a time in the province of Palestine. There, he developed an enduring interest in Jewish history, religion and folklore. This is particularly evident in the poems that were later to form what are today known as the Hebrew Heroes Song Cycle. Manuscripts have survived with what are believed to be complete versions of several of these poems, most notably: Sailors of the Ark, an account of the Deluge of virtually every early religious apocrypha; Brave Goliath, a view of the old story from the Philistine hero’s perspective; and the tragic story of Hebrew strong man and erstwhile bully-boy Samson bar Samson and his ill-fated affair with the Philistinian beauty Delilah, Sam’s Son and Delightful.
There are references in manuscripts to poems celebrating the sibling rivalry of the generic brothers Cain and Abel, and also, Jonah‘s aquatic adventures, all allegedly penned by Meniscus. But these have not survived the ravages of time. Herman Melville suggested such a lost yarn in his retelling of the tale of Jonah in the salty sermon in Chapter Nine of the magnificent Moby Dick: “What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand. We feel the floods surging over us”. One can almost hear Meniscus’ lost shanty in the epic of the great albino whale and the tortured Ahab, as, bound together, they assault the howling infinite.
Other works extant today have been set to music by contemporary songwriters and poets, for example Song of Isaac, and Hallelujah, a story of King David, both set to music by Leonard Cohen. But these, very different in form and style, have been demonstrated to be the work of other hands.
Another poem that is linked to this abiding interest in Rome’s eastern provinces is Lilith, an epic ballad that is virtually a history of the “Legend of the Fall”. The style of Lilith differs markedly from that of the Hebrew Heroes cycle and was evidently written for a different manner of presentation. It was most likely written to be recited rather than sang (as were the other “story songs”). Recitations were a common form of entertainment in the middle Roman period, owing their popularity to the enduring reputations of the “classical” writers of the time, Ovid, Horace and the like. It was not uncommon for such recitations to last several hours. But Meniscus, mindful of the fast moving times, and also of the attention span of his audiences, appears to have honed his pieces down to between ten or fifteen minutes.
If Meniscus’ tale of Adam, Eve, Lilith and Lucifer has not been lost to literature until its very recent discovery, one wonders whether John Milton would have bothered to retell it in such lengthy and verbose detail.
Lilith, however, has been around for thousands of years. In the Talmud, she is described as a winged demoness with a human appearance. She appears in the bible, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in Hebrew folklore, and has been mentioned in black magic treatises. The apocryphal story is that Lilith was Adam’s first wife. God made Adam from dirt and clay. Adam bored, requested a companion, and God obliged with Lilith. Legend has it that her dirt was dirtier than Adam’s, but put that down to patriarchal prejudice and propaganda. More likely, she had the dirt on him! But I digress. Apparently, Lilith was not as inferior to Adam as he wanted. She wanted to be her own person, not Adam’s wife-slave. The story is that when Adam insisted on the missionary position, Lilith refused, saying “Why must I lie beneath you? We are both equal. We come from the same earth”. Adam got mad, and Lilith took off.
Because of this, she was banished from Eden and became a spirit associated with the seductive side of a woman. Eve came in her place to stand behind Adam, not beside him. Lilith became the timeless femme fatale, preying on the easily tempted weaker sex, the fabled incubus who comes at night upon men as they sleep. It is not for nothing that she has been hailed the (informal) goddess of wet dreams.
The legends are many and various. If you buy into the Lilith theory, you will see her cropping up throughout history in a variety of guises. In biblical times: Delilah, Salome, and Potophar’s wife. In fact and fable: Sheherazade, Lucrezia Borgia, Mata Hari, Evita Peron. Hollywood’s screen ‘sirens’ like Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. All of them antitheses to secular saints like Eve, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Jackie Onassis, Mother Theresa, and Princess Diana.
The Nazarene Poems
Totally different in style and colour are the Nazarene Poems. They reflect the temper of the times, and particularly, Meniscus’ personal circumstances. The years leading up to and following the Great Fire of Rome were unsettled ones for Rome and Romans. Riots, conspiracies, revolts, purges, pogroms and murders were commonplace. Meniscus, as a member of Nero’s entourage, would have been uncomfortably close to the action, and his poems reveal that he was a deeply troubled man. For the hitherto sardonic and light-hearted Meniscus, this was a long, dark night of the soul. Meniscus witnessed many of the harrowing events of Nero’s reign, particularity the persecution of the Christians. The poems show that he was emotionally, creatively, and also spiritually affected by them, and indeed, reveal considerable empathy for the persecuted sect.
Of the Nazarene Poems, only a handful survives. The tragicomic Road to Damascus tells the story of the conversion of Saul. Peter and Paul is probably the only rendering in poetry of the conflict between the two founding fathers of Christianity and their eventual martyrdom. It is very likely that Meniscus actually met both men during their stay in Rome and may even have gleaned much of the material for his ballad from them.
A humorous vein runs through most of Meniscus’ poems. This vein is totally absent in the bleak and chilling Good Friday (The Thief’s Tale), the Crucifixion as if filmed from an altogether different camera angle. Canadian writer Bruce Cockburn set a similar poem to music with Dweller by a Dark Stream, although the author of that poem comes at the story from yet another perspective.
WH.Auden wrote: “Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I am certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good church enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood, I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight – three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say “It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private, giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?” Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful”.
Towards the end of Nero’s reign, a certain morbidity infused Meniscus’ work. Ever darker thoughts surfaced to colour his poetic palate. Three poems have been attributed to the Meniscus of this drear time. The Manichean Devil’s Work and Lucifer, and the surreal The Darkness. Known today as Red Rain, the extant manuscript of this latter work bore the Aramaic title “Choshek” (pronounced kho-shek). As a commentary on the turbulent and terrifying events of Nero’s reign, the title is apt – figuratively it can mean misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, wickedness, as well as nocturnal darkness and obscurity. And the use of Aramaic, the language of the Roman provinces of Palestine and Syria, and of the Jews and the Christians, is instructive.
As was the subject matter. There was no diabolical god in the Roman and Greek pantheon – or amongst the Norse Gods for that matter. There were gods who did nasty things, but that was because they are annoyed, or angered, or moved to vengeance or malice. These, one placated to restore them to a better humour. Nor is the Satan, the principle of evil personified, actually in the bible. This was a later construct that was read back into it. In the bible, in Milton, the devil, whilst not exactly pleasant and delightful, is either on the side of the heavenly authorities at the least, or at the least, not destructively opposed to them.
In these poems, however, Lucifer, the romantic rebel of Lilith, was morphing into the tempter, the trickster, the Prince of Lies and Lord of the Flies. Meniscus’ melancholy muse was leading him down by dark waters, making him to lie down in barren pastures. He was clearly journeying through a confused ethical landscape to a sinister philosophical place. One could be tempted to postulate that his travels may have taken him off to visit the prescient seer of Patmos.
One other poem of Meniscus’ survives to this day. Roman Holiday was in its time one of Meniscus’ and Gluteus’ greatest commercial successes. By the time of the reign of the Emperor Nero, the Roman Empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Persian border. Tribute poured into Rome from all corners of this far-flung empire, as did visitors – the early equivalent of today’s tourists. Roman Holiday captures in song the essence of Rome in the latter half of the First Century when “fun” was the “order of the day” (or else, if Nero had anything to do with it).
In Roman Holiday, there is a distinct reference to the Great Fire of Rome: to the belief that it was Nero’s doing, and to the Christians’ unfortunate role as scapegoats. The order that was given has entered into common parlance: “Conlige suspectos semper habitos”, “Arrest the usual subjects!” Astute Romans were quite aware that the unfortunate sect had been set up, but such was the atmosphere in town that they told all considering comment Ne eas ibi! “Don’t go there!” The fire was inspiration for another popular Roman song of the time. With its memorable refrain Animadvertistine, ubicumque stes, fumum recta in faciem ferri? (Ever noticed how wherever you stand, the smoke goes right into your face?), we know it today as Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. Another “torch song” of the period, Aliquid Ardet! was revived in the late Twentieth Century and recorded at various times by Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, and Dolly Parton with the title “Something’s Burning”. These certainly give new meaning to the term ‘golden oldie’.
Other references are more obtuse, particularly those to the charioteers and gladiators. No records of these champions have passed down to us. Charlton Heston may be a bowdlerized version of Chalcedon Hesta, an acclaimed rider who hailed from Asia Minor, in what is now modern Turkey. Kirk Douglas is most probably Kyril Duganev, who originated in what is today the Ukraine. A lot is probably lost in translation.
Watch Roman Holiday in History, the movie:
A Human Touch
In reading these old and almost forgotten poems, one realizes that though centuries may pass, the nature of human beings has remained essentially constant. This is one reason why Shakespeare’s characters are so immortal in our imaginations – they are so demonstrably, so tangibly, so reassuringly human in their faults and their failings, their needs and desires, their strength and resilience, their triumphs and their falls. Whilst never attempting to raise Meniscus Diabetes to the status of the bard, or to the great poets of our species, he nevertheless expresses and represents a particular timeless sensibility, a human touch.
Forvm Romanvm http://www.forumromanum.org
H Beard, Lingua Latina Occasionibus Omnibus (HarperCollins 1992)
H Beard, SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome (Profile 2015)
Tom Holland, Dynasty – The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (Anchor 2016)
Grant M & Pottinger D, The Romans Thomas Nelson Sons Ltd, 1960)
Graves R, I Claudius (Eyre Methuen, London, 1976)
I Caesar…BBC 1998
Monty Python’s The Life of Brian
Mullins A, Classic Fathers (Australian Weekend September 5-6, 1998)
Also in In That Howling Infinite on matter Roman:
Can we imagine what Meniscus Diabetes and Gluteus Maximus looked like? No images exist, either in stone, fresco or parchment. The featured image may provide us with a clue. The word ‘cartoon’ originated from the Latin ‘charta’ or ‘piece of papyrus’. As the Romans might have said, orbis paulum.