Saturday, March 26, 2016

La influencia de Safo en Enrique Bunbury

El cantante español Enrique Bunbury retira inspiración de diversas fuentes musicales (sonidos latinos, árabes, Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd) e literarias. Entre las obras literarias que han inspirado sus canciones están piezas teatrales de Wilde y Antonio Vallejo, la filosofía de Nietzche, novelas de Kafka, Dickens y Jules Verne, o la poesía de Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Alberti y Kipling. El cantante-compositor hizo una carrera de música con contenido e influencias diversas, pero siempre sellada por su forma personal de sentir.
«Enrique Bunbury en concierto en 2012: Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA»

Pero hoy me gustaría señalar una influencia algo desconocida de los inmensos admiradores de Bunbury que es como la influencia de 
Safo se insinúa de forma tan sutil en la canción El Rescate del álbum El Viaje a Ninguna Parte. No debería, sin embargo, ser sorpresa que Bunbury haya buscado inspiración en la poetisa griega de Lesbos, una vez que los temas gay-lesbianos son parte integral de la carrera del cantante desde su inicio. El propio nombre artístico Bunbury proviene de un personaje de La importancia de llamarse Ernesto de Oscar Wilde, cuyo significado es deliberadamente ambiguo. Muchos lectores y estudiosos de Wilde, incluyendo su amigo Aleister Crowley, creen que el personaje Bunbury representa la vida doble de Oscar Wilde, ocultando un amor homosexual y secreto del escritor.


Safo tiene un impacto muy particular en la historia de la literatura, ni que sea solo porque hubo muy pocas mujeres escritoras hasta los últimos dos siglos. En la antigüedad los poetas eran casi todos hombres y también su audiencia eres masculina. Los poemas y canciones eran acompañados de música y cantados durante las cenas extravagantes donde hombres comían en exceso y se emborrachaban de vino. Las únicas mujeres presentes en estos simposios eran danzarinas, flautistas y prostitutas o cortesanas, destinadas al entretenimiento de los invitados. Dado que toda la poesía antigua tenía interpretes masculinos y audiencia masculina no es de sorprender que sus temas incidían sobre la guerra, la búsqueda de gloria, la fuerza del deseo masculino o el amor homosexual. Safo probablemente enseñaba poesía y canciones a otras mujeres antes que estas se casasen con sus hombres. Los poemas de Safo abordaban materias bien distintas y representan una autora que valoraba el amor más que todas las cosas. También son poemas particularmente sensibles al sufrimiento y con un lenguaje muy directo y simple, pero que al mismo tiempo apelan a emociones poderosas, sentimientos y obsesiones imposibles de ignorar. Por eso es muy fácil reconocer la influencia directa de Safo en mucha de la poesía erótica u amorosa de otros autores, desde los romanos como Catulo y Ovidio hasta los escritores Anglo-saxones del siglo 19 como Thomas Hardy, Byron, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne, Lord Tennyson y William Carlos Williams.

El Rescate tiene como tema el precio a pagar por el amor apasionado que uno dedica a alguien que nos desprecia. Es una canción de extremada vulnerabilidad y el compositor se revela como alguien desesperado, consciente de que sus esfuerzos son inútiles, pero que paradojalmente valora más al amor que cualquier bien material del mundo, sea dinero o casas grandiosas. Abajo presento el refrán  de la canción y en seguida explico cómo Bunbury se inspiró directamente en dos poemas de Safo. Ni siquiera es una casualidad que en el mismo año del lanzamiento del disco de Bunbury fue publicada una traducción completa de los poemas de Safo en español de la autoría de Aurora Luque y que fue un éxito literario.

“No hay dinero, ni castillos, ni avales, ni talonarios,
no hay en este mundo, -aunque parezca absurdo-,
ni en planetas por descubrir, lo que aquí te pido.
Y no te obligo a nada que no quieras.
Las fuerzas me fallan, mis piernas no responden;
te conocen, pero no llegan a ti.”

Bueno, la enumeración de El Rescate es extraordinariamente similar al poema 16 de Safo, que habla que ni la riqueza, poder y los ejércitos tan valorados por los hombres, ni ninguna cosa sobre la tierra, nada de eso vale nada relativamente a la persona de la cual se está enamorada. No es un acaso que Enrique Bunbury menciona lo mismo en una forma más moderna “ni dinero, castillos, avales, talonarios”. La lista de Safo de cosas inútiles apreciadas por los reyes y generales es una imagen de la antigüedad, pero la lista de Bunbury es válida para todos los hombres ricos y pobres de espirito que viven en los días de hoy. Repárese además que el título de la canción de Bunbury es “El Rescate” y el poema de Safo refiere claramente que ninguna promesa de gloria o de bienes materiales, ni siquiera la amenaza de guerra, sirvió para pagar el rescate más famoso de la historia que fue el rapto de Helena de Troya.  Una tercera similitud entre la canción rock y el poema griego es que ambos tratan de amantes que están lejos y ausentes, Anactoria en el caso de Safo y un arrebatador amor anónimo en el caso de Bunbury.

Poema-Fragmento 16 de Safo
“Hay quienes dicen que los hombres montados a caballo,
o un ejército de soldados o una flota de naves,
son lo más hermoso sobre la tierra negra,
pero yo digo que es aquello de lo que una está enamorada.

Es muy fácil que todos comprendan esto,
pues la bella Helena abandonó a su esposo,
el mejor de los príncipes, se fue navegando hacia Troya,
y no se acordó de su hija ni de sus queridos padres.

Ahora recuerdo a Anactoria que no está presente.
Yo quisiera ver su amable paso y el resplandor radiante de su rostro
más que los carros de los lidios y los soldados de armaduras relucientes.”

Pero la influencia sáfica no acaba aquí, porque existe una cuarta característica de la canción de Bunbury inspirada muy claramente en otro poema de Safo. Es muy difícil a un hombre admitir su debilidad, pero Enrique confiesa que sus fuerzas le fallan al extremo “Las fuerzas me fallan, mis piernas no responden”. La mayoría de las canciones y poemas masculinos inciden sobre la belleza del cuerpo femenino o sobre la gran confianza del hombre que es más bello, fuerte y seductor que los otros. Por lo tanto es muy raro que Enrique – un hombre de éxito, admirado por el mundo, con una imagen de cowboy y macho duro – hable que no tiene piernas ni fuerza. En verdad esa vulnerabilidad extrema de Bunbury es algo muy bien capturado y de una expresión femenina muy evidente. Nadie mejor que Safo expresó la palidez que le causa a uno mirar la persona que se ama y perder la voz, la vista, y sentir las piernas flaquear, con un pulso acelerado como si estuviésemos enfermos y a punto de morir.

Poema-Fragmento 31 de Safo
“Igual a los dioses se me parece
ese hombre que, sentado frente a ti,
de cerca escucha tu dulce voz y tu risa adorable;
ello me ha dado un vuelco al corazón dentro del pecho;
pues apenas te miro, ya hablar no me es posible
sino que mi lengua se quiebra, un leve
fuego al punto me corre bajo la piel,
nada pueden ver mis ojos, me zumban los oídos
me cubre el sudor, un temblor me posee toda,
me siento más pálida que la hierba
y a mí misma me parece que estoy cerca de morir.”

El poema-fragmento 31 es quizá el poema más conocido de Safo y ha sido imitado por inmenso autores de diversas lenguas al largo de los últimos siglos. La frase “Las fuerzas me fallan, mis piernas no responden” tiene realmente una similitud enorme no solo con el poema original de Safo, pero además con los poetas inspirados por esta, tal como el homenaje de John Hollander al fragmento 31 de Safo “my tongue collapses, my legs flag”.

Enrique Bunbury es realmente un compositor de una sensibilidad fabulosa, porque en 2500 años de poemas y canciones no hubo nadie a capturar de forma más actual, tan linda y sensible estos sentimientos. La poetisa griega es linda, porque al leer sus palabras siento una emoción absurda, como si alguien que conociera me escribiera una carta enviada a través de  un océano y muchos siglos de distancia. El cantante español es el más original de todos los poetas-cantantes que alguna vez se han inspirado en Safo, una vez que su canción no es una copia de sus poemas griegos. Los poemas de Safo son tan impecablemente hermosos, tan poderosos y difíciles de mejorar, que mismo los mejores escritores han casi copiado palabra por palabra los poemas originales, solamente restando una línea o dos. Bunbury es el único que hizo su propia versión con una actualidad poderosísima y una belleza increíbles. ¡Hasta creo que Safo diría que su discípulo masculino logró cantar tan bien o mejor que el original! Aquí queda mi homenaje a mi canción preferida del rock n’ roll español y a mi escritora preferida. Feliz Pascua.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Chariot Racing and Sports Stars in the Ancient World

(Neither Messi, Ronaldo, Federer, Jordan, Schumacher or Tiger Woods are the best paid sports player in history. In fact Cristiano Ronaldo is not even the top athlete in Portuguese history! The top earnings prize goes to a Lusitanian (old Portuguese) chariot racer born in 104 AD. Also, in Roman Races even a dead man could win if his horses finished the race, a true posthumous glory! And fights among ancient “hooligans” reached a violence far above today.)


The predecessors of most sports started as Funeral Games in Ancient Greece. All of the Pan-Hellenic Games – the Olympics, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian festivals – honored a patron god and a deceased human hero. Homer in the Iliad describes how sports in the Bronze Age were already a tradition during funerals of great warriors. In a previous post I wrote how Alexander the Great paid for an elaborate set of athletic games for his deceased friend Hephaestion.

The Olympic Games were the oldest of the four festivals and according to tradition begun in 776 BC. Some of the games played by the Hellenic peoples still exist such as wrestling, boxing, foot races, long jump, discus throw and the pentathlon. Chariot racing was perhaps the most popular of all ancient sports. While chariot races no longer exist it is easy to imagine them as a close predecessor to some modern sports, such as equestrian races and car races such as Formula 1. Chariot races in Greece and Rome were done at special venues, the hippodromes, which resemble quite well the elliptical shapes of modern horse or car race circuits. Above I show a modern recreation in France of how a roman chariot race could have been like. Another pic shows a gymnasium in Olympia where Hellenic athletes would train to improve their skill.

In Greece and Rome the owner and driver of the chariot were different persons, since the drivers were often slaves or men of low birth. Even nowadays in equestrian races the owners are often more prestigious than the jockeys. Races were risky events where drivers and horses would often crash or be trampled to death by the other competitors. Women were not allowed to drive, but they could own the cart and horses, a prominent case being Cynics, daughter of a Spartan King. Unlike other Hellenic sports which were practiced by males in the nude, charioteers wore sleeved garments and a leather helmet to protect themselves from the dust and the crashes. Below I show a mosaic with a Roman charioteer. Greeks and Romans no longer used chariots for battle at this time, since they were unstable and riders could be thrown out of their cart. However, the most enthusiastic moments of these races were really the round turns when the spectators could expect incredible crashes with deadly results for both horses and driver, sometimes of several cars in a row as competitors would knock and crush into each other around the post.

The largest hippodrome ever built was the Circus Maximus in Rome which could seat up to 250,000 people. In this circus you could do extensive betting on the winners of a race. There was an extensive market of bookies and professional betters willing to take advantage of the naïve and greedy. Some people would lose their fortunes and even their freedom from lost bets. Rules of winning were tricky at times, because the winner of the race was the first chariot passing the finishing line – even if the man had been trampled to death way behind. Nowadays we celebrate deceased athletes, but the Roman racers could actually claim a truly posthumous glory for their victory! In the center of the race there was a series of pillars with sculptures and engravings on top. These pillars and adornments increased the number of crashes (the Romans called these accidents, naufragia or "shipwrecks"). and the death risk of the races. Racers would want to be as close as possible to the center of the track in order to reduce space and pass their opponents, but the closer to the center the riskier their moves were. In general the bravest and most intelligent horse had to be the one closest to the center of the track, since his movements would be the ones to either lead him to glory or to death. Above I show a picture of the Circus Maximus in Rome which is pretty much an abandoned field nowadays and below I show the hippodrome of Constantinople which forms part of the city center of Istambul. There were four teams disputing the championship of races in ancient Rome and Constantinople, with their identities being given by their colors – Red, Blue, White and Green. Fanatics of these teams often descended into violence and hooliganism and their power was enough to topple down big politicians. In 532 AD the Nika riots started as a dispute between different chariot teams and threatened the reign of emperor Justinian, ending up with half of Constantinople burnt and tens of thousands of people killed.

Finally, no modern athlete, neither Messi, Ronaldo, Federer, Jordan, Schumacher nor Tiger Woods can claim to be the best paid sports player in history, since even the richest of these have only earned slightly more than 1 billion USD. In fact Cristiano Ronaldo is not even the top athlete in Portuguese history! The top earnings prize goes to Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a Lusitanian (the roman name for the ancient Portuguese people) chariot racer born in 104 AD. Diocles earned the sum of 35,863,120 sesterces which amounts to roughly 15 billion USD and all of these winnings came from race prizes, not advertising revenues. Diocles was known for being a strong finisher, who would wait for an opportunity and then pass his opponent from behind at the finish line.  He won 1,462 of his 4,257 races and finished second 861 times. Through his long career Diocles raced for three teams – White, Green and Red – and retired at 42 years of age, still quite able to enjoy a good life. His supporters erected him a monument in Rome detailing his victories. Most of the chariot champions died young, with one example being Scorpus who won over 2000 races before dying in a collision at 27 years of age. As a finish note, Cristiano Ronaldo does not have to mind being passed by his Portuguese ancestor. I am a Portuguese and a fan of Sporting, therefore he is still my big hero.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Curse of Memory: how the first Christian emperor erased his family from history


The greatest punishment in Roman law was not the death penalty, but the damnatio memoriae: a mix of a death execution, the seizure of the person’s property, and the removal of all traces and memory of his life. Such a sentence implied that statues of the condemned person could be destroyed, his face would be erased from paintings and his name could be erased or blotted out from written documents, coins and even from the stone inscriptions in monuments.

Many of the “evil” emperors such as Caligula, Domitian or their relatives (such as Livilla, the daughter-in-law of Emperor Tiberius, and Geta, the brother of Emperor Caracalla) suffered damnatio memoriae sentences. Above and below I show pictures of a stone pillar in Spain where the name of Emperor Domitian was erased after his death and a portrait of the Severus imperial family where Caracalla’s brother Geta was erased from the painting. I also show a cameo portrait of Livilla, daughter-in-law of Emperor Tiberius, who was executed in 31 AD because of accusations that she had conspired with her lover Sejanus to kill Emperor Tiberius and take over the imperial throne. Also, Livilla’s own mother accused her of having poisoned her husband (Emperor Tiberius’ son) and that perhaps her children were the result of adulterous liaisons. The Senate removed all mentions of Livilla after her death, so there are no absolutely certain portraits of her, but some scholars think that this cameo fits her description and could be a rare portrait that survived the harsh legal sentence.

The term damnatio memoriae was actually created in the 16th century by the German legal scholar Christoph Schreiter in a thesis of 1689. In practice the Romans applied several different measures to reach the joint effect that the condemned individual would lose all the honors of being a Roman citizen and its memory. For example, the removal of all the written inscriptions of the name of the condemned was a sentence called the abolitio nominis. For the Romans the removal of memory was the opposite of the Apotheosis, which represented the glorification of a deceased person (such as an emperor or empress) to divine honors. Since Roman society stressed the importance of honor, respectability and fame, then erasing one's memory was the most severe punishment of all.

The Roman emperor who became perhaps the biggest user of the “curse of memory” sentence was Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. In particular Constantine I applied the damnatio memoriae to several of his family members who at certain point aroused his anger or stood in his path to power. While Christianity is a religion that values forgiveness, apparently such teachings do not preclude erasing the memory of your enemies and relatives. Perhaps if one simply forgets their hated memory, then it is not really necessary to forgive them at all.

Constantine lived one of the most turbulent periods in history, since those were the decades in which Christianity was on the point of being either the largest minority religion of the Empire or its major religion. This was a breaking point at both the political and social levels. At the political level the Empire was divided among four co-emperors and each one resented the power of its colleagues. Each single emperor was waiting for a moment of weakness from its rivals in order to invade its territory and stripe away his powers. Constantine started as the weakest of the co-emperors, being in charge only of Britain and Gaul. These territories were weak in terms of economic resources and armies, and were also continuously threatened by invasions of Scottish and Germanic tribes. Therefore Constantine was the weakest of the four co-emperors and the most likely candidate to be humiliated and eliminated from the political scheme. However, Constantine and also his eldest son Crispus were extraordinarily good generals. Constantine won wars against each of his co-emperors which had much larger armies and stronger navies. Even if Constantine was not known today as the first Christian emperor, he would certainly be remembered as a general of the same importance as Caesar or Alexander the Great. Below I show a picture of myself and my twin brother in front of Constantine’s bronze statue in York, England, where he was first acclaimed as Emperor in 306 AD. In the next few years Constantine would often receive messages and ultimatums from his co-emperors asking him to resign himself to a lower imperial role. However, in less than twenty years Constantine would have taken over all the territories of his rival co-emperors and by 324 AD he was the complete master of the Roman Empire. In 337 AD Constantine was planning a big war against the powerful Persian emperor Shapur II, justified as a crusade to protect the Christian followers in the Persian Empire.

At the social level the Roman Senate and its old aristocratic families now realized the traditional pagan cults were irrelevant to most of the population and were only practiced at official ceremonies which no one cared about. Think of those boring speeches that politicians give nowadays on TV and then no one remembers a single sentence in the next day? Well, that was how the top pagan priests felt like around 300 AD. Besides Christianity other sun religions such as Mithraism were now popular all over the Empire and clearly the traditional Roman paganism was withering away rapidly. Traditionally, Rome was a state with complete religious liberty (as long as its religious supporters did not defy the imperial laws and paid their taxes). One could even think of Ancient Rome as a “market of religions”. There were temples of all sorts of deities standing side by side. One could go worship a snake fertility god or go listen to an Egyptian cat-goddess speak through a statue (with a hollow space inside where a priest or priestess could hide and speak). Others would participate in the mysteries of obscure eastern religions with different grades of tests designed to evaluate their worshippers’ worth as they climbed the orders of their religion. It was during Constantine’s adolescence that the main Roman Emperor Diocletian launched the greatest persecution of Christians during Roman history. Most of the stories of Christian martyrdom come from this time period. Some estimate that the Diocletian’s persecution could have made around 3,000 victims, which was a significant number by Roman standards (although much less than the 20th century religious and political conflicts).

Constantine lived through turbulent times, therefore he hit his adversaries as hard as he could even if these were close family members. Constantine first applied a damnatio memoriae to his father-in-law (and also his step-grandfather), the old co-emperor Maximian. Actually, Constantine had good reasons for such a measure. Constantine had treated well his father-in-law and given him some powers with his army, but a few months later Maximian decided to rebel and support his own son against Constantine. After this Constantine quickly won against Maximian and forced him to commit suicide. However, some years later, after Constantine had won the war against Maximian’s son, the co-emperor Maxentius, he re-habilitated Maximian’s memory and gave great honors to his deceased father-in-law. Later Constantine started a war against his powerful co-emperor in the East, Licinius, who was also his brother-in-law. After Constantine and his eldest son Crispus won several large scale battles, he became the undisputed master of the Roman world and issued a damnatio memoriae against Licinius, accusing him of killing the families of other co-emperors and of the persecution of Christians. Modern evidence shows that Licinius in fact supported Christian rights, had a Christian wife and may even have been a Christian himself, therefore Licinius was a victim of Constantinian propaganda.

Just two years after Constantine became master of the world, he ordered the execution of his eldest son Crispus by “cold poison” and a damnatio memoriae against Crispus, his wife and his only grandson. This must have been a big surprise to all of the world, since Crispus had been a good and reliable general of Constantine and was his only adult son, therefore his most plausible future heir. One month later Constantine also ordered the execution of his own wife, Fausta, by an “overheated bath” and her damnatio memoriae. Fausta was the mother of three male children and one daughter of Constantine, therefore again this must have been a hard decision. Also, Constantine had Fausta in high esteem and had given her the divine honors of Augusta just three years before. Below I show a coin with Crispus image and a bust of Fausta.

Historians speculate that the death of Crispus and Fausta are related, but no one knows exactly how since the “curse of memory” erased historical records that would have been essential for our understanding. Crispus was Constantine’s son from a previous marriage, therefore Fausta was only his step-mother. Ancient historians Zosimus, the anonymous work Epitome de Caesaribus, the 8th century fiction Passion of Artemius, and the 12th century scholar Joannes Zonaras, say that Fausta wanted her own children to become the future emperors and told Constantine that Crispus wanted to rape her or begin an adulterous affair. In this possible version of the story Constantine orders in rage the execution of his eldest son and after one month realizes that Fausta lied and kills her too. However, other historians point out that an “overheated bath” could indicate an attempted abortion and therefore a possible adulterous affair between Fausta and Crispus which resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. Significantly, Fausta’s sons later became Roman Emperors after Constantine’s death and none of them tried to rehabilitate their mother’s reputation, therefore this points out that they believed her to be guilty of something.

There is, however, a third possible explanation of this story. An article by historian Patrick Guthrie in 1966 suggests that Constantine ordered both deaths on political reasons. Constantine wanted to build a dynasty for his children, but that created difficulties in managing their ambitions. Therefore he orders the death of Crispus to prevent his ambition and remove a threat against the three sons of Fausta. Then he orders the death of Fausta as a signal to his other children and relatives that Constantine is firmly in the grasp of absolute power and that he would not hesitate to kill anyone if he deems it necessary. While this explanation may sound a bit off, we must remember the ancient world often had harsh struggles for power. The previous rulers of the Seleucid or Ptolemaic empires often had to order the deaths of their siblings to keep power. Also, many Roman emperors before Constantine and also his Byzantine successors often ordered the imprisonment and death of husbands, wives and sons, in order to keep their power. Therefore it is not impossible that Constantine himself feared treason from inside his own family. Whatever happened the erasing of memory leaves a lot to our imagination for solving this mystery novel.