So the other day I was reading Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial (1658) for the first time. Some people may call it “the longest piece of absolutely sublime rhetoric to be found in the prose literature of the world,” but I must say I didn’t find it any very great shakes. (Greg Gerke plausibly lauds Browne’s attachment to alliteration; I dunno.) Still, I’m glad I’ve finally read it.
I read this 1907 reprint, assisted by James Eason’s fantastic HTML notes. (James Eason’s penelope.uchicago.edu is one of the wonders of the old web. The same domain hosts a second wonder also: Lacus Curtius, Bill Thayer’s HTMLification of large swaths of the Loeb Classical Library and other classical texts.)
If you can handle the original typography, I might recommend the original 1658 edition — you can find it at the Public Domain Review — for its evocative engraving of the urns in question(?) right at the start of the main text, captioned with a quotation from Propertius. See also William Murison’s annotated edition (1922), literally half of which is endnotes.
Anyway, I got to the part where Browne says
The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. Who can but pity the founder of the Pyramids? Herostratus lives, that burnt the Temple of Diana; he is almost lost that built it. Time hath spared the epitaph of Adrian’s horse, confounded that of himself. In vain we compute our felicities by the advantage of our good names, since bad have equal durations; and Thersites is like to live as long as Agamemnon. Without the favour of the everlasting Register, who knows whether the best of men be known? or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, then any that stand rememb’red in the known account of time?
(Marcus Aurelius 6.18: “What a strange humor there is amongst some people, who are desirous of being praised by posterity; that is, by those they never saw, nor will have the least acquaintance with. Now this is almost as absurd as to be disturbed because you were not praised by the generations that lived before you.”)
That paragraph naturally raised in my mind the timeless question: What is the epitaph of Adrian’s horse? This was not a reference familiar to me. I didn’t even know if we were talking about the Roman emperor better known as Hadrian, or one of the Popes (of which there were six).
One of these days I’ll get around to re-reading Fr. Rolfe’s Hadrian the Seventh (1904), which I remember as being fantastic. If you like Chesterton, or if you liked The War with the Newts, you probably owe it to yourself to read Hadrian the Seventh. By the way, the “Fr.” in Rolfe’s name stands for “Frederick.”
Going down this rabbit hole led me (past an episode involving Adrian IV and Barbarossa that I still don’t really understand) to a recorded after-dinner speech by one Dr. Walter Reginald Bett (1903–1968) — the “Oslerian oration for 1962,” delivered on the occasion of the 113th birthday of “Father of Modern Medicine” and alleged Browne fan William Osler, and titled “The Epitaph of Adrian’s Horse.” If you’ve got 45 minutes to kill, I recommend Bett’s speech; it’s as full of obscure references as Urn-Burial itself, and leavened with what seems like every joke in the Toastmaster’s Handbook.
The Chinese have a saying
that it is only when you reach the age of fifty
that you are able to appreciate the mistakes
which you made at the age of forty-nine.
Bett eventually got around to explaining the title: we are indeed talking about the Roman emperor Hadrian (76–138), adoptive grandfather of Marcus Aurelius, whose mausoleum is now the Castel Sant’Angelo. Hadrian loved his horse Borysthenes so much that he wrote a poem for Borysthenes’ marble tombstone. The tombstone — and the poem — survive; Hadrian’s own epitaph is lost, and Alaric scattered his ashes.
The name “Borysthenes” is the key that unlocks the Google search results. The Loeb Classical Library has the poem itself. Two excellent blog posts on the subject:
- “Poetic Dreams of Flight” (Peter Kruschwitz, April 2015)
- “Borysthenes Alanus” (Dario T.W., July 2016)
A verse translation courtesy the Loeb Classical Library’s Minor Latin Poets (1913):
Borysthenes the Alan
Was mighty Caesar’s steed:
O’er marshland and o’er level,
O’er Tuscan hills, with speed
He used to fly, and never
Could any rushing boar
Amid Pannonian boar-hunt
Make bold his flank to gore
With sharp tusk whitely gleaming:
The foam from off his lips,
As oft may chance, would sprinkle
His tail e’en to the tips.
But he in youthful vigour,
His limbs unsapped by toil,
On his own day extinguished,
Here lies beneath the soil.
On the subject of love for animals, and what is remembered when we ourselves are forgot:
A British civil servant stationed in Egypt had a small son who showed a touching attachment to a local statue of General Gordon mounted on a camel. Every day the boy would visit Gordon’s statue, staring admiringly upward. As they prepared to return to England, the boy begged for a farewell visit to the statue. “Good-bye, Gordon,” he sobbed. The father was quite moved by this display of patriotism. Then, as they turned away, the boy suddenly thought to ask:
“Daddy— who’s that man on Gordon?”