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Tragical Dreamer: Some Dreams in the Roman Historians

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 September 2009


There are many ways of classifying dreams. This paper is concerned with only one, perhapsthe most fundamental: one which also – we are told – captures the most important difference between modern and ancient dream-interpretation. Ancient audiences were primed to expect dreams to be prophetic, to come from outside and give knowledge, however ambiguously, of the future, or at least of the otherwise unknowable present. This sort of dream is hard to distinguish from the ‘night-time vision’, and indeed it is sometimes hard with dreams in ancient literature to tell whether the recipient is asleep or not. For moderns, especially but not only Freudians, dreams come from within, and are interesting for what they tell us about the current psychology of the dreamer: for Freudians, the aspects of the repressed unconscious which fight to the surface; for most or all of us, the way in which dreams re-sort our daytime preoccupations, hopes, and fears. This distinction between ancient and modern was set out and elaborated a few years ago by Simon Price; it was also drawn by Freud himself. At the risk of oversimplification, we could say the first approach assimilates dreams to divination, the second to fantasy - with all the illumination that, as we increasingly realize, fantasy affords into the everyday world, as it juggles the normal patterns of waking reality at the same time as challenging them by their difference.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1997

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1. On ancient systems of dream-classification and the difficulty of reconciling one system with another, see now esp. Miller, Patricia Cox, Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture (Princeton, 1994), 14124Google Scholar, particularly 39–73, 77–91; also Kessels, A. H. M., Mnem. 4.22 (1969), 389424Google Scholar, and Dodds, E. R., The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, etc, 1951), 102–34Google Scholar.

2. For instance with the night-terrors of Aristomenes at Apul. Met. 1.11–14, where the uncertainty whether or not this is a dream contributes to a wider narrative play between reality and unreality. For similar uncertainties cf. Ehrlich, E. L., Der Traum im Alten Testament (Basel, 1953), 812Google Scholar; Hanson, J. S., ANRWii.23.2 (1980), 1407–9Google Scholar; and Cox Miller (n. 1), 133, 206, writing of ‘a dubious twilight’.

3. Price, S. R. F., in Before Sexuality: the Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (ed. Halperin, D. M., Winkler, J. J., and Zeitlin, F. I., Princeton, 1990), 365–87Google Scholar.

4. E.g. The Interpretation of Dreams (1900: tr. and ed. Strachey, J., Harmondsworth, 1976, 59–61, 170)Google Scholar; ‘Five Lectures on Psycho-analysis’, in Two Short Accounts of Psycho-analysis (Harmondsworth, 1962: first published 1910), 61Google Scholar.

5. For this approach, cf.esp. Jackson, Rosemary, Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion (London, 1988Google Scholar: first published 1981); Sullivan, Ceri and White, Barbara (edd.), Writing and Fantasy (London, forthcoming)Google Scholar; and in an ancient context Cox Miller (n. 1). On the relation between dreaming, daydreaming, fantasy, and phantasy, see more fully Segal, H., Dream, Phantasy, and Art (London and New York, 1991), esp. 1617, 30, 64–5Google Scholar.

6. Jerome, , Ep 22.30.2–5Google Scholar, productively analysed by Cox Miller (n. 1), 210–31 as crystallizing Jerome's own unease (she speaks of the dream as ‘detective of the heart's secret’); she brings out the way in which erotic imagery there illuminates a particular ascetic mode of figuring the human body.

7. On Artemidorus' distinction and the use he makes of it see Price (n. 3), esp. 371–2; Winkler, J. J., The Constraints of Desire (New York and London, 1990), 1744Google Scholar; Bowersock, G. W., Fiction as History: Nero to Julian (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1994), 7798Google Scholar; Cox Miller (n. 1), 77–91.

8. Artemidorus 4.59: cf. Price (n. 3), 374; Winkler (n. 7), 29, 38.

9. Chariton, , Callirhoe 5.5.5Google Scholar, and Heliodorus, , Aethopica 1.18.3–4Google Scholar; both passages are discussed by MacAlister, S., Dreams and Suicides: the Greek Novel from Antiquity to the Byzantine Empire (London, 1996), 34–6 and 78–81Google Scholar.

10. Thus MacAlister (n. 9), 71–3, in the course of a most illuminating discussion of the novelists‘ technique. Bowersock (n. 7) would put the figure much higher, but takes an uncomfortably reductionist view of the dreams’ narratological function.

11. That may also be true of some of the novelistic dreams, such as those mentioned in n. 9: if we initially suspected that a dream might reflect the dreamer's state, that suspicion may be supplemented rather than displaced by increasing clarity about its prophetic quality.

12. On this ‘progressive internalization of the demonic’ see e.g. Jackson (n. 5), esp. 53–60; then the second half of her book is largely devoted to charting this process through individual authors. Addicts of an adjacent genre may also think of Obi-Wan Kenobi's words to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (1977), ‘A young Jedi knight by the name of Darth Vader… betrayed and killed your father’; by the end of Return of the Jedi (1983) we have grasped that Darth Vader is Luke's father, and the destruction was internal.

13. Todorov, Tzvetan, The Fantastic: a Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (tr. Howard, R., London 1973), esp. 4157Google Scholar: cf. Jackson (n. 5), 24–32.

14. Todorov (n. 13), esp. 24–34, 76.

15. Above, p. 197.1 pursue this question of focalization further in an article on ‘Modem Fantasy and Ancient Dreams in Sullivan and White (n. 5): cf. also n. 42 below.

16. So, rightly, West, S. R., CQ 37 (1987), 264Google Scholar. At Herodotus 7.16/3.2 Artabanus suggests that dreams can simply reflect what one thinks about during the day. That idea was clearly familiar enough for Aeschylus’ disingenuous Clytemnestra to make use of it at Agamemnon 892–4: she has been so agitated for Agamemnon's safety that she has dreamed about his imagined wounds – so she says. On Herodotean dreams in general, cf. Frisch, P., Die Träume beiHerodot (Meisenheim, 1968)Google Scholar, with the scathing review of Marg, W., Gnomon 42 (1970), 515–7Google Scholar; I discuss Artabanus’ scepticism in my paper in Sullivan and White (n. 15), and another pair of prophetic dreams, those of Astyages at 1.107–8, in CQ 46 (1996), 6877CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17. Vestal dreaming of her own killing: Rom. 2.5. Cicero dreaming of young Octavian: Cic. 44.3–4. Host of others: e.g. Themistocles’ elaborate dream of safety, Them. 26.3; Pyrrhus dreams of Sparta blasted by a thunderbolt, , Pyrrh. 29.1–4Google Scholar; other interesting cases at Per. 3.3, Cimon 6.5 – 18.2–3, Pomp. 32.6, Alex. 18.6–8 and 41.5 (the last not exactly prophetic, but revealing unknown facts). On Plutarchan dreams in general see the discussions by Brenk, F. in Lat. 34 (1975), 336–49Google Scholar, and In Mist Apparelled (Mnem. Supp. 48, 1977), 214–36; for creative reconstruction, Pelling in Antonine Literature (ed. Russell, D. A., Oxford, 1990), 1952Google Scholar.

18. Marc. 28.4–5 (nothing on dreaming in the parallel account in Livy); Thes. 6.9 (no dreaming in the nearest parallels, Isoc. 10.23 and D. S. 4.59.1); Brut. 13.2 (does this then tie into the Life's later discussion about visions and phantoms at 37.4?).

19. But there is more to the contrast than this: I discuss it more fully in Sullivan and White (nn. 5, 15).

20. As Brenk (n. 17) argued for such cases as Mithradates’ dream at Pomp. 32, where the dream can illustrate the dreamer's anxiety as well as the irreducibly ‘from outside’ new information, and Demetr. 19, Medius’ dream of Antigonus’ steadily diminishing success: ‘The dream illustrates the curious characteristics of anxiety, prediction, and vision of the future which we find in so many dreams of the Lives’ (In Mist Apparelled, 222). Hanson (n. 2), 1407, 1419 gives some other instances where a dream is particularly suited to the dreamer's preoccupations; in several the dreamer is also given otherwise unknowable information.

21. Suet. Div. ltd 7.2 and Dio 37.52.2.

22. That emphasis might seem odd to us, but for Artemidorus too (1.79) dreams of motherintercourse are a good sign for politicians and office-holders: this is because the mother signifies the native land, and in the dream is figured as obedient and willing. Artemidorus finds motherintercourse dreams particularly complex to interpret, and variations of sexual position carry vast differences of signification. Cf. Winkler (n. 7), 37–8, 42; Bowersock (n. 7), 83–5.

23. Brenk (n. 17), Lot. 34 (1975), 346Google Scholar= In Mist Apparelled 226.

24. Compare Dostoevsky's reaction to Pushkin's Queen of Spades: (cit. Jackson (n. 5), 27): ‘You believe that Herman really had a vision… however, at the end of the story, i.e. when you have read it through, you cannot make upyour mind. Did the vision come out of Herman's nature or was he really one of those who are in contact with another world, one of the evil spirits hostile to mankind?’ That uncertainty is important to Dostoevsky's admiration of the work as ‘a masterpiece of fantastic art’.

25. Fabius Pictor had a dream of Aeneas, apparently prophesying everything that happened to him: Cic. Div. 1. 43 = fr. 3 P., cf. Cic. Div. 1.55 = fr. 15 P. Then Coelius had dreams of Hannibal (Cic.Dro. 1.49–fr. 11 P.), Latinius (Cic. Div. 1.55 = fr. 49 P.), and C. Gracchus (Cic. Div. 1.56 = fr. 50 P.); Gellius of Latinius (Cic. Div. 1.55 = fr. 21 P.).

26. Cf. Cic. de Div. 1.99 = fr. 5 P. (Cicero's ‘Quintus’ is indignant at Sisenna's line): discussed by Rawson, E., Roman Culture and Society (Oxford, 1991), 381–2Google Scholar(= CQ 29 (1979), 341)Google Scholar. For the last of Sulla's dreams, see above, p. 200.

27. See Beard, M., JRS 76 (1986), 3346Google Scholar; Schofield, M., JRS 76 (1986), 4765Google Scholar; Denyer, N. C., PCPS 211 (1985), 110Google Scholar.

28. Levene, D. S., Religion in Livy (Leiden, New York, and Koln, 1993)Google Scholar.

29. 26.19.4, neatly and doubly picked up in his speech at 26.41.18–9.

30. Levene (n. 28), 45–7, relating the dream to Hannibal's recent piety at Gades (21.21.9).

31. Cf. Herrmann, W., DieHistorien des Coelius Antipater (Meisenheim, 1979), 7386Google Scholar, though he is inclined to make the outcome a punishment for that disobedience.

32. Graves in fact has ‘last’, but his footnote shows that he meant to print ‘first’ (Lucan's primi). Pompey's first triumph was in fact over the Numidians in 81 B.C., some time before he went to Spain in the seventies; and his theatre was not built till the late fifties in any case. But dreaming is like that.

33. The following two paragraphs abbreviate a discussion in my paper in Sullivan and White (nn. 5, 15).

34. The touch is delicious: this is only conjecture – as if the first part of his report, the dream itself, were somehow solid fact. The text is here doubtful, though the point is clear enough. Professor Woodman puts to me that we should read ut coniectura demonstrat, and regard this as part of the indirect speech. Thus Caesellius Bassus is made to explain ‘this is Dido's treasure, as conjecture makes clear…’.

35. Notice also Ann. 11.4, one of the hapless Petra brothers suffers for having a dream illomened to Claudius; 2.27.2, Libo Drusus consults somniorum interpretes. In neither case are we encouraged to think the dreams are truly prophetic; if emperor and/or alleged dissident takes them seriously, the significant point is again that response, this impact on others rather than any truth in the dreams themselves.

36. The near re-enactment here of Varus’ disaster is most suggestive: cf. e.g. Woodman, A. J., Rhetoric in Classical Historiography (London and Sydney, 1988), 174Google Scholar. Arminius too cries that this is a second Varus delivered into his hands, 1.65.4. Tacitus may have finessed the detail of Varus’ camp to bring it into closer contact with Caecina's: so Pelling (n. 17), 49 and n. 83.

37. Goodyear, F. R. D., The Annals of Tacitus ii (Cambridge, 1981)Google Scholar on 1.65.2. He regards the parallel at Lucan 7.26, discussed above, as crucial.

38. 2.43, 77, 82: then she and Tiberius do not go into public when the ashes of Germanicus return, something which made Tacitus most suspicious and inquisitive (3.2); at 3.15 and 3.17 Livia begs off Plancina (cf. 6.26). For Livia's continuing feud with Agrippina, cf. then 4.12.

39. I have discussed this unworldliness of Germanicus’ characterization in Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (ed. Luce, T. J. and Woodman, A. J., Princeton, 1993), 5985Google Scholar.

40. Apollonius’ Medea was so entranced by Jason's beauty that his image stayed in her mind in dreams and day-dreams, Argon. 3.442–58: again, ‘from within’. The Argonautica is so important an intertextual referent for Aeneid 4 that the contrast of the two women's obsessions, in affairs which are by now so very different, adds a further dimension here.

41. So Gray, V. J., AJP 108 (1987), 467–86Google Scholar.

42. But that is not to say that the mimesis is carried through crudely, by having the reader's bemusement map simply or straightforwardly on to the dreamer's own experience: the reader's role is not (in Todorov's phrase) ‘entrusted to’ a character in this way (Todorov (n. 13), 33). Our writers are subtler than that: this is sharing of perceived experience, not of the perception itself. The relation of reader's dubiety and character's dubiety is in fact most complex and shifting. I discuss this more fully in Sullivan and White (nn. 5, 15). – This paper was first delivered to the Classical Association in Nottingham in April 1996, then in Lampeter in November 1996 and in Groningen in March 1997; I am grateful to all three audiences for lively discussion, and to Professor Tony Woodman for enlightening me on several aspects of the Tacitean passages.

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